It’s technically March at the time I’m writing this, but here, in Portland, it still feels like winter. I miss the actual sunbeams that used to hit my kitchen floor in the winter in Oakland and how my cat would stretch out her body to fill the whole space. This image feels like summer to me and reminds me of sitting in a fairy ring of redwood trees. I think sometimes you need to bring the sunlight and warmth into the winter, so maybe this cover will do that for you as it did for me. Some other words we associate with this image are: physicality, grounding, ferns, nature, firs, and “feltness,” which Gili talks about in their interview with Linda. The “Finding the Forest” project depicted in this image brought people together in physical space in a way that feels so distinctly pre-pandemic. As our campus reopens in real time and space, we are excited to make new connections with our greater PSU community. You can see some of these connections in this issue of our Social Forms of Art Journal.
-Luz Blumenfeld and Gilian Rappaport
For this issue of SoFA, we each interviewed people affiliated with Portland State University. Our social practices tend to engage with communities, but as a program we operate more as a satellite of our parent university. Individually, we have our own ways of connecting with campus life— teaching assistantships in undergraduate classes, working on-campus jobs, hanging out in the park blocks, taking Dance Fusion aerobics class at the athletic center, or working in the Social Practice Archive housed in the Special Collections at the PSU library. But because we primarily convene for classes off campus— at KSMoCA (Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School), Harrell’s living room, on Zoom from our respective homes (or favorite coffee shops)— it can feel like we, as a group, are disconnected from our university community.
This year, as we experience a completely open campus after an era of pandemic protocols, many of us are getting reacquainted, or acquainted for the first time, with our campus; sprucing up our studio space, doing projects at the art department’s Open Studios, or picking up free groceries from the food pantry in the basement of Smith Student Union.
This winter, we found people in departments all over PSU who are engaging with topics connected to our own areas of investigation. We are excited to introduce you to the many people doing incredible research, teaching, projects, and labor across the university.
In the interviews that follow, we meet a dance professor who wants you to notice your body in the city and the city as a body; a pragmatist philosopher who surmises the whole world is one big role playing game; the lone mascot of PSU’s athletic department who’s willing to shake everyone’s hand; a sociology professor who wants us all to talk more about death; a social psychologist devoted to trash; two graduate students with an intimate connection to their bowel movements; a critical feminist geographer using comics to explore the experience of homelessness; a critical race spatial educator uncovering the hidden curriculum within university culture; and the PSU Provost, who wants more artists’ voices in the room.
Come with us on the most in depth and strange virtual campus tour you’ll ever get!
Caryn Aasness, Luz Blumenfeld, Becca Kauffman
I first met Kacy McKinney in a classroom at a small college in rural Vermont. She was a professor in the geography department and I was a student who didn’t know what I was interested in so I took my friend’s advice and took Kacy’s class about GMOs and was so glad I did!
When I moved back home to Portland in 2017, it felt like Kacy was appearing everywhere I went. First, at Sisters of the Road, a community space and cafe for the unhoused community, and then at the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC), a community art studio, where I was a front desk volunteer and Kacy was a student in their comics program. And then again this year when I started this program at PSU I was delighted to remember that Kacy is a Professor in the Urban Studies department and we can continue to run into each other.
Kacy is the facilitator, instigator, coordinator of “Changing the Narrative,” a project that “produced a series of ten short comics created through collaborations between PSU students with lived experience of homelessness, Portland-based comic artists, and the research team” that culminated in a book of comics sold by Street Root vendors on the sidewalks of Portland. It was a pleasure to talk to Kacy about this project that brought together ideas and people from the two places we encountered each other in Portland.
Marissa: I think it would be fun to start with how when I moved back to Portland you just kept popping up. I saw you at Sisters of the Road– I saw your picture on the board members list, and then I started volunteering at the IPRC and I was like “Oh, there’s Kacy again!” It was so fun.
Kacy: And I think the funny thing is– you didn’t ever take a class with me at Middlebury, did you?
Marissa: No, I did!
Kacy: You did? Okay. Which one did you take?
Marissa: I took Political Ecology of GMOs with you!
Kacy: Okay, cool. That was a hard one. Nice. I was trying to tell Sage, my partner, last night, and I was like, I think maybe she never took any classes with me. We just were following each other in Portland, but that’s a good class for you to have been in anyway.
Marissa: I was glad to be in it!
Kacy: Did you live in that house too? The house that everyone lived in? With the food?
Marissa: Yes! I lived in Weybridge.
Kacy: Yeah. That’s where I would’ve lived if I was a student there too.
Marissa: I wanted to start with how you feel about where you are now as an educator and also as someone who is in the comics and DIY world? And how you feel about how you got here?
Kacy: My path through education began with not going to high school and instead I took a test. So I had this different way of doing school and I did finally start a four year undergrad at University of Texas because I wanted to learn Portuguese really well. At that point, I didn’t have that many people in my life who were excited about education or who wanted me to do graduate school or anything, so I just followed models around me and it was very, you pick a discipline and you do the discipline and it’s all social science, and I was drawn to that. So even though I had art and creativity in my life (I was even making comics then), I didn’t take it seriously because nobody around me did. I sort of moved through undergrad and then into a master’s and then into a PhD, all the while being like, someday I’ll have time for art. Someday I’ll have time to volunteer and do service. And by the time I got to Portland I’m like, I cannot separate these things anymore. I cannot only do art over the summer. I’m trying to retrain myself to not think of art as extra or on the side. When I was at the IPRC I was unemployed, so I had the space for the first time since I was 21 to ask, what do I really wanna be doing? So I found myself in Portland like a teenager again asking, how do I wanna live? What do I wanna prioritize? Maybe not a teenager, but maybe more like my twenties because I have a good position that’s grounded and that fits me, but there’s still a bunch of other stuff that is not in my job description that I need to be doing.
The pages of All My Dad’s Cars (2019) with the artists’ dad, Steve McKinney, the subject of the comic. At a gallery show in California at Toby’s Feed Barn. Photo courtesy of Kacy McKinney
Marissa: When I found myself at the IPRC, I was coming from the fine art department at Middlebury where I wasn’t finding any models and was feeling very out of place. At the IPRC I got to realize that printmaking wasn’t about the fine art world or making a single piece. At the IPRC it’s about hanging out with people, or making zines, or just being part of that intimate world. I didn’t have to fit into the fine art world.
Kacy: I’m realizing now that the IPRC was a window into the fine art world for me. I was able to be around that amazing group of people and in that kind of space and work on comics and I could start to believe that I could be in the fine art world. And comics were leading me to painting and drawing and I am sort of like, Wait, am I not doing comics anymore? Am I an illustrator now? Am I a painter now? And I think, for now I’m not really doing comics and I’m okay. Just a couple months ago I finished a giant drawing that is inspired in some ways by comics, like I’m using the same pens I would use, but it’s six feet by four feet and it’s a life size pelican. That is not comics. And that’s okay. So I’m having to sort of settle into the fact that comics are a big part of my life, but I am like, does this mean now that I could have access to this world of fine arts? Yeah. And I’m like, could I do both? You know? How would that look? I wonder for how many people the IPRC leads them into a space of belonging that then allows them to see what they’re capable of and not just in one area.
Marissa: It’s a multi-directional hub. That tracks for me, and it makes me be like, “Ugh, the IPRC is so great!” It doesn’t shoehorn anyone into one way of making art. It’s like, we have these resources and you can do what you want. And I think it’s funny because I talked about the IPRC making me feel accepted outside of the fine art world, but like now I’m in this MFA program.
Kacy: I know. Look at you.
Marissa: I’m like, What? But this program is just a little corner of the fine art world that actually is comfortable for me because this program is questioning what it means to be in a fine art world. And I think that’s what the IPRC also ingrained in me. It’s a place of people being radical within whatever space they’re in. And so now I’m in a fine art world where people are asking what it means to be trying to make art. And what does it mean to be an artist and what does it mean to show work in the world and what is an art project even?
Kacy: And that’s the part of it that inspires me, I’m super drawn to this program. Every student that I’ve had a connection with has been amazing. It’s so inspiring to me to think that you could do social science/art and that’s actually the dream. And I think maybe what I wanted all along was this ability to think critically and do social practice.
I think I wanna say one more thing about the IPRC, which is that because of IPRC, I got connected to Short Run Seattle and I got the Trailer Blaze Residency. And I was so nervous for that residency. I was like, “Will I fit in? What will people think?” But I ended up getting so comfortable there and then got this connection into this Seattle-based women, trans, and non-binary collective. I was invited into this space with these people who are all deeply caring and deeply welcoming and they told me, you belong here and your art is good enough and you are good enough and we need you. It still gives me chills. I realized that I’m looking for that kind of community. That’s why I’m drawn to the program that you’re in because it feels like it offers some of that. Some of the, we are critical, we are welcoming, we are warm, there’s space for all of us.
Trailer Blaze Residency 2019 Residents and Short Run Seattle Board Members (left to right, top to bottom): Lee Bess, Kelly Froh, Graciela Sarabia, Amy Camber, Alejandra Espino, E.T. Russian, Lori Damiano, Leela Corman, Kacy McKinney, Ashley Franklin, Eroyn Franklin, L. Armstrong, Jessica Hoffman, Megan Kelso
Marissa: In academia, especially, there’s such a push for being critical. I love the spaces that are like, you’re here, you belong, but also, what could you be doing? Is that really what you wanna be doing?
Kacy: Yeah, but that’s like a good friendship, right? You don’t want a friend who’s just like, No matter what you do, you’re wonderful. Everything you do is wonderful. You want the one who’s like, Wait, I just heard you use that word, like, are you sure you wanna use that word these days? We’re not really using that word anymore. And you’re like, Oh, shit. Thank you. Or the friend who’s like, I’ve noticed you’ve been interested in this thing. You haven’t really talked about it. Can you say more about that? I think that’s the right kind of belonging.
Marissa: Do you wanna talk about Changing the Narrative? And the ways it’s twisted together and pulled in these pieces of your life and your interests? How has that felt? What have you learned?
Kacy: Yeah, I love that you see that because it feels very natural to me. I have students who want to start right away and I like to express that this took all the things that I did before it. And I’m not young and I didn’t just start out, maybe I wish I could have done it sooner, but the only way that it has been successful is based on the relationships and the experiences I’ve had. Everything has been important: education, certainly the places that I’ve traveled to have been important, the languages that I’ve studied.
The biggest pieces are the pieces when I stepped a bit away from academia, and that was volunteering at Sisters, and I think we did it sort of the same way. I got interested and I got invited to volunteer right after I moved to Portland. And I was sold on day one. I just was like, this is hard and it’s wonderful. I met so many incredible people and started to make friendships. And then at the same time I did the IPRC program and it started to feel like I knew some of the key people and l was getting to know the richness of artists who exist in this area and what they’re capable of.
By that time, I was at PSU and starting to feel comfortable, and there was a grant application that came up that was from the Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative. And I thought, I can get that. It was the first time that I just was like, okay, like these things come together in my mind and it makes sense to me. I care deeply about students and their wellbeing, and I care deeply about homelessness and dignity and respect and stories, and I care deeply about comics and their ability to tell complex stories in ways that engage people deeply. And it feels right to both recognize that yes, I’m an artist, but like this is not about my art. Let me be a facilitator of this happening.
It was very exciting to think about being able to compensate students and hear their stories and value their stories in a deeply respectful way. It was exciting to think about being able to compensate artists and I knew there were so many that we would have to choose from. I knew we would be able to find 10 artists who cared deeply about the project and maybe had some lived experience.
I expected from the beginning that the stories would be really wide ranging and so, therefore the art needed to be very wide ranging. I put it out into the world and then when I got it, I was like, this makes sense that I got this. This is right.
Marissa: I’ve been thinking about comics artists as organizers, about the anthologies that people put together and the ways that you can be an artist that taps into these kinds of organizing and synthesizing skills, rather than just being the visual artist for a project.
Kacy: That’s so interesting, yes. That part of it is hard for me because people will say, what was your role in it? And I’m like, Ooh, the editor? Facilitator? Organizer? Researcher? Selector of people? There’s so many skills that I’ve developed in the process. I sort of did everything and nothing is kind of how I think about it. Right? I made the whole thing possible and they’re not my stories, it’s not my art, you know? I’m trying to understand true collaboration– collaboration in which you are that person, just like you’re saying.
Marissa: What are you thinking moving forward? Like what are the things that need to stay and what are the things that are more flexible within the project, for the future?
Kacy: I think I was just talking to students yesterday about the process, because I’m teaching a methods class and we were talking about how much you have to know in advance to be able to do it. Olivia’s working on a project with me called “Epilogue,” that is requesting the participation of all 10 artists, all 10 storytellers, the three interns on the project, and the two research assistants to come back and creatively reflect on what their experience was with the project. It’s less of what we should do differently next time and more of what did it mean for the artists and what did it mean for the participants? I think I’ll learn more about what to do differently next and how we can build and how can we do more? How can we work more with IPRC? How can we work more with Street Roots to make it easier for them, but also to engage vendors in meaningful ways?
And then I’m trying to raise funds to do the whole thing again. And I do think in this process of reflecting with the whole group of people, there will be some really concrete things that I find I wanna do differently. But the biggest and most important part is like finding the right team. And I’m hoping to do another one in two more years. I’ve doubted whether the right thing to do is to do the same thing again, but if the whole point of it is to share as many wide-ranging stories as possible that are unique and beautiful, then like we just need more. If it’s working, why would we stop? The social scientist in me is like, but what questions are you asking? And are you asking hard enough questions and are you building more data to inform the academy? I have to remind myself, that’s not what this is. This is creating more opportunities to tell stories and trying to change how people think about homelessness.
Marissa: Yeah, and the structure’s already there. There’s such a pressure to do something different, to ask different questions. But since we’re working with people it’s gonna be different and you’re gonna learn different things every time even if you use the same structure.
Kacy: And that’s the point, right? I’m always talking about Chimimanda Adiche’s idea of “the danger of a single story.” I’m always asking: are we telling one story about this really complex thing? Homelessness is a perfect example. We’re telling like one or maybe two stories that supposedly apply to everyone. And anyone who’s experienced housing instability knows that there are so many different reasons why this could happen. It’s so systemic, right? It is so based in discrimination and inequality and poverty. Can we stop selling the same story? Of course we need as many stories as we can have.
Marissa Perez (she/her) grew up in Portland, Oregon. She is a printmaker, party host, babysitter and youth worker. She’s interested in neighborhoods and the layers of relationships that can be hard to see. Her dad was a mail carrier for 30 years and her mom is a pharmacist.
Dr. Kacy McKinney (she/her) is a critical feminist geographer and Senior Instructor in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, and Affiliated Faculty in Comics Studies. She is an artist working in comics, painting, illustration, and textile design. She is a graduate of the Certificate Program in Comics from the Independent Publishing Resource Center, and has had residencies with Short Run Seattle’s Trailer Blaze, Mesa Refuge, The Sou’wester, and The Verdancy Project. She has received grants from Regional Arts and Culture Council and Portland State University for her work in the arts and comics scholarship. She served on the Board of Directors of Sisters of the Road from 2018 to 2021. Her current research: Changing the Narrative Through Collaborative Comics is funded by PSU’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative and is in partnership with Street Roots and the Independent Publishing Resource Center. Courses of particular interests to art students that she teaches include: USP410/510: Arts and Community Change (Spring 2023), USP407/507 (and WR407/507): Comics into Research (Fall 2023), and USP325U: Community and the Built Environment (Fall 2023).
What makes a good time good? I suspect that a hallmark of the “good time” is, quite often, a felt sense of togetherness. Yes, good times can be had alone, and yes, bad times certainly happen in the company of others, but it’s around people that we are reminded of our common humanity; physical proof we are not alone; a temporary dissolution of the hard lines we draw around ourselves. As Elias Canetti says in Crowds and Power, “Only together can men free themselves from the burdens of distance.” And that’s good, right?
It makes sense, then, that within the extraordinary scenario of being en masse (say, at a sports game), there would be an additional element (say, a mascot) to serve the purpose of emphasizing that good time. A mascot acknowledges our value as spectators and rewards us for our presence, amplifies our enthusiasm and reflects it back to us. In the chaos of whistleblowing umpires, aggravated coaches, injured players, fast talking commentators, fouls and buzzers and wins and losses, the mascot acts as a hospitable interlocutor to guide us through, reminding us to enjoy the hubbub, smile for the jumbotron, and accept a fist bump when offered.
I don’t know about you, but mascots are what keep me in the game, when I’m at a game (which I rarely am). There’s something about a seven foot tall, plush dolphin that hits different than a mortal human of flesh and blood. It helps that the mascot even physically scales up in size to proportionally support the crowd’s massive, collective spirit. That seven foot dolphin creates a larger than life fiction you might actually, for a moment, believe; a world where it’s safe to really care about something, to get on board, to root for some basketball team just because they play for your college, to embrace your regional pride or even some kind of newfound patriotism, if only for a couple hours.
Mascotry strikes me as performance art woven into a genre—sports—that we rarely associate with creative expression. And this is where it gets interesting for me. As a self-identified entertainer, I treasure the theatricality and clownish sensibility of these costumed cheerleaders. I relate to their keen consideration of the crowd (what’s a performance without spectators? We need them!) and their ability to distribute equal attention to the players and the audience like a cordial party host. A sports arena is effectively a theater in the round, where everyone watching the game also gets to watch each other. We are all implicated in the experience, and we all play a part. The lively group nature of a sports game recalls the participatory culture of ancient and Elizabethan theater, when it was customary for audience members to respond with loud utterances and a lobbing of stones or a goblet of wine. I love that mascots become a conduit for the collective buzz of the spectacle.
I recently started hosting a weekly public dance happening at Lloyd Center Mall in Portland called Public Acts of Dance Company, and realized that I am effectively a mascot for the “game” of dancing publicly at this half empty shopping mall. In front of the shuttered Hollister or the former Champs, I observe Saturday shoppers walk past us with perplexed or piqued looks on their faces, and I respond by smiling, dancing harder, and beckoning them to join us. I’ve coaxed a few passersby, but I have to wonder if my success rate would increase if I were dressed as a giant sneaker or an absurdly proportioned saxophone.
For all the output of energy and attention toward the crowd’s experience, though, you have to wonder: where does that leave the mascot? What’s it like behind those eyes? For answers, I turned to the closest mascot within reach: Victor E. Viking, the official mascot of Portland State University (PSU).
Mascots aren’t allowed to speak, but the people who play them are. Inside the Athletic Pavilion on campus, it’s “a well known secret,” who the human being is underneath the plush covering of the PSU viking costume, but the identity of “Z” must remain anonymous to the general public. Z works in the marketing department, which is a nod to the fact that mascots are, in truth, a branding strategy. Plus, this position helps conceal his true affiliation with the sports department— only the tennis team, with whom he shares a locker room, and the cheerleading squad, who sometimes teach him a routine, are in on it. His second life will be revealed at graduation, where tradition will have him walk in Victor’s enormous, plush sandalled feet: “It’s supposed to be a final, Oh, this is who it was the whole time.”
Until then, Z, who possesses the mascot’s holy trinity of athletic, theatrical, and hospitality experience, lives an anonymous dual existence as the one and only mascot of Portland State. As I learned from talking with him, that can be “a weirdly alone experience.” Maybe that’s what, in part, propels the presiding social nature of Victor’s personality. After all, shouldn’t everybody be having a good time?
Becca: How did you become Victor E. Viking? Did you have mascot experience? How long have you been doing it?
Z: I was an athlete, but I was also big into theater. I did a bunch of musicals in high school every spring when I wasn’t playing sports, and that was one of my big niche things that I really liked doing. So when I heard about the opening—which I found out about through a friend, they hadn’t had a Victor in two or three years because of COVID— I remember telling them at the office, Hey, I can just do my best and it’ll be a lot of learning on the job. I showed them some of my theater work, and it just lined up. This was last summer. So I’ve been on the job for six months now.
Becca: How did you train? Or audition?
Z: There was no audition. It was like, Put on the outfit. It fits. Let’s take you to a couple of games, let’s have someone come— they call it a handler— with you; make sure you’re comfortable, and then they’ll report back to us and we’ll get an idea of how you did. My first couple events, I was really worried about how I looked. I’d be like, Hey, does everything look normal? They were like, Yeah, dude, we’re just happy to have a mascot here, you’re overthinking it. So a lot of it for me was understanding that it’s really about just being there and being seen. You don’t have to go so hard and constantly do everything. A lot of it is tough, especially interacting with so many different people, and with limited vision. You can’t see very well at all.
Becca: Through those two eye holes?
Z: That’s it, that’s all you have. So a lot of it is just sort of winging it. I’m way more comfortable at home games because I know the Pavilion really well. It’s been a great season for me personally, because I’ve been able to grow into it and get more interactions with the players. It was a good confidence boost, I think.
Becca: What does growing look like? What’s your vision for where you want to be as the mascot?
Z: As a mascot, you’re like a mime. You can’t speak, but you need to display some sort of emotion. That for me was really hard. I may have done theater, but I’m not the most creative person. So a lot of it was like, Okay, I can do this, and people are responding well, so I’m always going to do this every time there’s a situation like that. I do a lot of repetitive action. You want to kind of stay reserved. One thing I do is I’ll taunt the other team when they’re shooting free throws. But you don’t want to go too far, because they’re college athletes too. Even if we’re playing them, I want them to do well, and I don’t want them to feel like it’s a mean thing. That’s just how Victor is.
Becca: That was a question of mine: who is Victor E. Viking?
Z: Uh, I don’t know. He’s way more confident than I am, I will say that. He’s definitely more cocky than I am. And he’s probably a little annoying. But I think those are all good traits for a mascot. When I put on the Victor outfit, if I see a player complain about a foul, I’ll start doing the crying [motion]. I guess he’s like a troll. A nice one. I always clap for the other team and go visit with the visiting fans.
Becca: So he’s slightly provocative to keep a competitive edge, but still supportive of everyone in the room.
Z: Yeah. I would rather be a bit more empathetic with my approach, versus, if we lose I still want the players to know they did awesome. I could care less if we win or lose. Most of the time I don’t even know the score because I’m walking around trying to shake hands and take pictures, rather than actually pay attention to the game. I mean, I think it’s important to win, but I think the experience for me at least is more like, is everyone having a good time? Did the families, did the kids, or the little brother, little sister, get to dap up the Viking? Because when I remember my experience with mascots, it was always a family thing.
Becca: What kind of value do you feel like the people that you interact with get from getting close to the mascot? Do you feel like they see you as some kind of celebrity? Is there a kind of larger than life excitement getting up close to Victor?
Z: There’s definitely different reactions. A lot of students are too cool for it. I’ll try to dap them up and they’ll kind of look at me and I have to just kind of get them to go. But then there’s other students who are just totally into it, absolutely love it. I try as best I can to give everybody attention, but those are usually the people I will float towards just because it’s easier to get that confidence. When the dance cam is going, you want to be dancing next to people instead of just dancing by yourself. Families are always very easy, because kids don’t care that nobody’s ever heard of Victor E. Viking. You float towards the people who are more into it.
Becca: You’re finding your audience.
Z: Even the game we had here last Saturday, I think most of the people were fans of the opposing team. I was waving at this one little section of the audience and this lady was not having it. She was just like, “Can you move?” She was just like, not about it. A part of me wants to stand there, and just wait as long as I can, act like I didn’t hear her. Another part of me is like, Well, I could just like go say hi to this family who, yeah, they’re all from the Eastern Washington team, but they’re all super into it. Maybe they give me a thumbs down, but they’re very nice about it. It’s very vibe oriented.
Becca: Do you think of yourself as an entertainer when you step into that space?
Z: It’s like pantomiming. You can’t speak, and I have always thought that the best thing about acting is being able to convey something without words. I think that’s the whole point of it.
Becca: The wildest thing about wearing a mask is that you can’t communicate through facial expression and instead you have to translate everything to your limbs and the way that you’re holding your body.
Z: Posture is a big thing, I realized.
Becca: Are you making facial expressions underneath that head, even though his face is out there, never moving?
Z: Absolutely. I’ve caught myself doing it a bunch of times. And I have to make sure I don’t make a noise. I don’t know about other mascots, but I definitely still hit all the facial expressions. I honestly think maybe that’s better for the performance because it’s more natural.
Becca: How does suiting up as Victor affect how you approach the rest of your life? Do you find that the attitude seeps out?
Z: It does for a couple hours. During football season, I went to the grocery store after a game and I felt like everyone was looking at me. And it’s like, No, they aren’t. It’s just because there were two hours of that straight. You have to catch yourself a little bit.
Becca: Totally. Sometimes there’s a real afterglow when you’ve been in the position of entertainer or someone in charge. Like you’re somehow carrying it on you. So maybe they really were looking at you, who knows?
Z: I wouldn’t be surprised, especially because you look kind of crazy after. I’m a pretty fair skinned person, and my face looks extremely red, and my hair is still a little sweaty. I’ve definitely, on my way out, had teenage kids say, Oh that’s the mascot! So I give them a thumbs up.
Becca: When your own humanity is obscured by this costume, does it ever get a little lonely?
Z: There are usually four to five mascots at a university, but because it’s a smaller program, I’m the only one. I’m friends with Benny the Beaver (of Oregon State University)– it’s my friend, Ryan. He tells me he hangs out with the other mascots like every day. So I think the only negative is that it can get a little lonely in that sense. My girlfriend will come to the games and my mom will sometimes come. The social media team I’m very close with, because I do a lot of work with them. But it is sort of a weirdly alone experience. You’re the only one feeling it and you’re the only one going through it. Especially if you don’t have the best interaction with somebody or maybe the night didn’t go as well as you hoped it would. I think that’s why I am not a big fan of the anonymous rule. I love that I’m close with the tennis team, because they know, and there’s a sense of trust there. It’s a little bit of a shame that the basketball team and football team aren’t supposed to know, because I feel like that would only bring us closer, right?
Becca: I relate to that loneliness as a performer. People can fall in love with that thing they see up there, but then at the end of the day, you’re you under there, and you haven’t necessarily been seen. Do you feel like being incognito at least gives you license to amplify some part of your own personal expression?
Z: Yes, it does. But you are also taking on a different persona, right? So the self expression, the creativity, that part of it is great, but there is also still a sense that, this is Victor, it’s not… It is me, right, and I’m the one controlling it. But I think the anonymity factor kind of makes it so… I don’t know.
Becca: It’s like you can’t quite take all the credit, because you’re not being perceived as yourself. You’re pulling the strings of the puppet.
Z: And there’s definitely a sense of freedom to that. I’m not the sort of person who would be in the center of the court, dancing. But when I have that on, who cares? No one sees that it’s me. That’s what they told me in the office about the anonymous rule. So I understand that part of it. But I think that people should be able to be that person, if they have it in them. Maybe the mask, the head, the costume isn’t always a good thing, in that sense. But if it ever got to the point where I was having a hard time with it, or it felt like something I needed to get off my chest, or something I talk to my girlfriend about when I get home, then I would mention it to them. But I don’t really care, it’s just the formal thing. It could be worse. I could not enjoy doing it.
Becca: It is interesting that one of the main purposes of the mascot is to bring everyone in the room together and represent this act of gathering, the athletic spirit and the excitement of a game and togetherness, all inside a culture of teams, and then here you are, the only one that’s not on a team.
Z: I think that’s more a product of us being a smaller program. Oregon State, there’s definitely more of a team aspect to it. But, you’re not totally alone— a lot of the cheerleaders I’m pretty close with; I go to their practices once a month or poke my head in if they have choreography for me to learn. There’s definitely still a sense of community, but it’s just probably less so than other programs. But that’s not a bad thing, right? Like, that’s also just a product of where you are and who you are, and the school you go to.
Becca: Has there been any talk of the team name and the character of a viking coming from an ancient, Nordic, plundering, settler culture?
Z: There hasn’t since I’ve been here, but I’m just a big fan of an animal mascot more than any human mascot. So like, I get it. I’m new to the Pacific Northwest, but I pretty much had the notion that a lot of people here have some sort of Nordic background. That’s a bit outdated, probably. I would hope that one day, they adopt an animal. I think that’s an easier thing to root for. It’s a little less creepy to have an animal mascot versus a spartan or a viking or a pirate. You know what I mean? A big thing for me is like, cuteness, right? If I see a mascot as a cute animal, I’m more prone to interact with it, versus that dude with the big muscles. I think that’s just a me thing, because I’m the one inside the costume. I don’t want to be creepy.
Becca: You’re like, I know how I look right now, so I’ll factor that into how I behave and interact with people.
Z: If you get kids who are really young, a lot of the time they might get a little creeped out or scared. You see that and you’re like, Man, if I was just a dog, or a bird, people would not feel that way. At least to me, it’s like, maybe don’t give him a golden beard. Give him like, a black beard or— especially because I’m a history major, and that’s a big thing for me is the historical value of it. There’s definitely a weird fascination with the entity of a Viking, where it’s like, you just go in and do whatever, and you’re more brutal than anyone else. No one can stand up to you. And I think that’s like a very American mindset. I’m not sure if that is cool. I think that there’s just a mythos to it that is very American in that sense, where it’s like, no one can tell me what to do. I’m stronger than you, even if I’m not smarter than you. It’s one that I personally do not relate to. I always, in my head, I’m like, Well, I hope I’m the only one thinking that.
Becca: You’re probably not, and I think that’s a good thing, that people be a bit more critical of it. I also wish that the mascot was a cute animal.
Z: When I was a little kid, I was always a Dolphins fan. Their mascot was the cutest and the most out-there animal that’s in the league. It’s a dolphin wearing football pads. How could you not love that?
Becca: A dolphin with feet! That takes the fiction to another level.
What does it take to be a mascot?
Z: I think it takes being a proactive person, more than a reactive person. When I worked in hospitality, I always saw myself as going that extra step forward. I think that that’s why I do well in the mascot outfit. For example, I went to the Phillip Knight tournament this year, which has a lot of bigger schools like Purdue and Florida, West Virginia. The Florida mascot was a gator, and he was sitting down the entire time, and I was like, I don’t want to be that guy. Even if I’m not the gator, I’m just like this obscure mascot, I’m gonna twirl my arms around a little bit. I think it is having a sense of confidence that is also boosted a little bit by the fact you are anonymous and you’re wearing a costume.
Becca: How do you maintain a sense of optimism in adversity, inside of a game situation?
Z: I have the approach of, don’t give up and just keep going. If the clock is running, then you need to be going, going, going. And maybe part of that is just a sense of work ethic. Even if you’re getting beat real bad, you can act like you’re worried about it or you don’t like it, but you still have to be performing, you know what I mean? When I’m down there, and I can feel that nobody has a good vibe, nobody is reacting, I think that’s where the work ethic part of it clicks in, where I’m like, Well, it’s my job. Even if it’s not the only job I do, I’m gonna do it the best I can for the three hours I’m in this costume. No matter what the circumstances.
Becca: Imagine a team that had no mascot at all. How would that team suffer? What happens in the absence of Victor?
Z: I think you lose some of the ambiance. You lose the feeling of having that host. You can still have an awesome experience, but would that kid on his way out be saying, “Go Viks,” if he didn’t see the Viking there as a symbol of the team? I’m not sure. I do think you lose a symbolic value.
Becca: Do you have any mascot ambitions beyond PSU, now that you’ve gotten a taste?
Z: I’ve thought about it. Maybe a local sports team, or even if they needed somebody at the high school [I worked at] to wear the suit for a year, I would do it right away. But professionally, I don’t think so. I think there are people who are built better for it than I am. I’m 25. So it’s like, how long can I even do this for? It’s a tough job. I feel it the next day, a lot of the time. But I also wouldn’t rule it out. I enjoy being a performer, but I enjoy other aspects of my life more. I remember listening to interviews of professional mascots. A lot of these guys are in their 30s and their 40s, and they’ve been doing this for a long time. They dedicate their lives to it. Maybe if teaching didn’t work out, and I was like, I just want to be a mascot, maybe. But I enjoy being myself. I think anyone who works as a mascot for that long has to really enjoy being that character, at least on equal par with themselves. You know?
Becca: Have you felt different since you started embodying Victor? Do you feel like you’ve taken notes from Victor’s personality in any way or discovered a capacity for one of those traits that you weren’t aware of before?
Z: I think I became a better dancer, which is cool. When I take off the costume, I’m me, right? If anything, more of me has rubbed off on Victor.
Becca Kauffman (they/them) is a socially inclined artist working in Queens, New York and Portland, Oregon. Practicing art as a public utility through interactive performance, devised gatherings, and neighborhood interventions, their work is currently situated at the local shopping mall and has also taken the form of an unsanctioned artist residency in Times Square, a public access television show, wearable conversation pieces, DJ sets, music videos, choreographed stage shows, original pop music under the moniker Jennifer Vanilla co-created with NYC producer and technologist Brian Abelson, a pedestrian parade with a group of fifth grade crossing guards, and a comprehensive artistic campaign to get a crosswalk painted in Queens. beccakauffman.net
Z (he/him) is a 25 year old originally from Virginia and now living in the Portland Metro area. He is pursuing a degree in history with the hopes of teaching his own students one day. He enjoys spending time with his dog and his girlfriend and doing various outdoors activities such as fishing, gardening, and hiking. For him, mascoting feels like a natural extension of his background in theater and something he does to connect with fellow students, athletes, and the school as a whole.
A hodgepodge interest is my favorite kind. I feel my own work and interest is a hodgepodge of language, garbage, compulsion and how following them changes our relationships to objects and others, textiles, craft processes, sensationalizing, serving, and question asking, among other things. I get excited when I see people doing work that feels unprecedented in its specificity yet vital in its nicheness and connected to so many topics in previously unexamined ways. I get especially excited when the work touches on topics that compel me, but exists in the world of research and science, which feels so outside of my own realm. When I read Dr. Christa McDermott’s bio on PSU’s website that mentions the environment, women’s studies, and the “emotional relationships with possessions, how we construct identities through consumption, and hoarding,” I was enthralled and knew I wanted to talk to her. Our conversation was just as rich and varied as I had hoped and inspired me to think in new ways about trash, responsibility, community, and equity.
Caryn Aasness: To start, would you tell me a little about yourself and what it is that you do?
Dr. Christa McDermott: Sure, My name’s Christa. My background is in psychology and social psychology, my specific degree is Personality and Social Context, and I have a degree in women’s studies so I’ve always had this weird hodgepodge thing, because I’m interested in that and I apply it to recycling [laughs]. I went into psychology and women’s studies with my interest in environmental stewardship of objects and my own personal interest: I’m the person who pulls things out of the trash, have been since high school. None of my friends were surprised that I devoted my life to trash [laughs]. I take pictures of trash on vacation, I take pictures of people’s recycling bins. But I’ve always been interested in the people aspect of it, how we display our identities or understand ourselves through the things we own or want to buy, and the tie-in to capitalism and the fact that our economy runs on consumption and so, of course, we’re oriented to express our psychology through our stuff. I don’t think this is explored a lot in psychology outside of marketing and trying to sell people things. So I was particularly interested in terms of gender studies; consumption has always been tied more to women and women’s identity, like shopping, caring for things, and maintaining them is much more of women’s labor burden. Our relationships to things are also gendered. As a grad student, I made up a course that I taught called the Sex of Things. I’m just trying to lay out the relationship, the genderedness of our consumption.
In graduate school you have more opportunity to explore what you want to do. At that time, the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu were really influential to me and all of his ideas around different kinds of capital and social capital. And he’s got one book [Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste] where he did a survey of a bunch of different French people of different backgrounds about the kinds of things that they liked or had in their home. So, he’d ask, Do you like this painting? One painting is boats with rope on it, and another is ballerinas or different things. He did this with a very large sample of people and showed that people’s tastes are not as unique as they think, and they’re very much tied to their social class identities. Things that we feel are very much our own personal preferences are very socially constructed, and it’s not that we don’t have our own personal preferences, but I think we really underestimate how much they’re influenced by our social structures and things like our affinities towards other people who are like us, or our desire to make ourselves dissimilar to other people that we don’t want to be like.
But then, as I actually try to do work in this area, it’s not easy. All the things I’m talking about I rarely get to actually do. It depends on funding in the world, and much more prosaic things. So I’ve spent a lot of time doing energy efficiency work. Right now, the work I do at PSU is around recycling. It’s what other people are willing to work with you on or pay you for. I try to bring my lens, the social structure lens to that work, especially in recycling, people are obsessed about how to get people to sort things differently, and I’m like, that’s not the issue at hand.
Caryn: What is the issue at hand?
Christa: The issue at hand is getting people to use less, reuse more: how do you have social structures that enable people so it’s not just an individual thing? How do you have a society that helps people fix their things? How do you get companies to make things that are fixable? It’s less mechanical and more social. What gaps need to be filled in people’s lives? Right now, what if owning things and shopping and especially turnover of things is what is helping them feel better? Or holding on to things? I’m very interested in hoarding because I see so much good intention in hoarding, but it’s often good intention gone awry. From what we understand, hoarding disorder is mostly driven by anxiety, but there’s different levels of hoardingness, and in a lot of environmentalists, I see a lot of almost-hoarding. We’re all trying to salvage objects and maintain them. That’s something that doesn’t get discussed as much.
Caryn: You mention how lots of this work is tied to institutional support and funding: do you see people doing work that is effective or could be effective, but is outside of that institutional support?
Christa: Yeah. There’s lots of organizations working on these issues from different angles. I don’t exactly know that I’d say there’s one place where people have a more holistic view. What’s important is the coming together of all these stakeholders around different issues and making sure that you have a whole range of people represented: the activists and the nonprofits. Something that’s been really eye-opening for me is some work I started doing with canners, or waste pickers as they’re called everywhere else in the world. That’s a group that makes you think very differently about the structures around recycling and what it can offer people. I met Taylor Cass-Talbot with WIEGO, [Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing], a global organizing group of women’s informal laborers. She works with waste pickers all around the world and also helped start up a co-op here called Ground Score, a cooperative of canners advocating for their needs. At first, when I thought about canning, I was like, Well, that’s something we just have to phase out, this sounds like a terrible life, people picking through people’s trash, hauling things all around, why are you not just trying to end this? And she’s like, No, this is empowering. This is low barrier, flexible work. People build a community around it, and do you want to know who’s actually making sure most of your recycling is working? It’s the people who are coming through and pulling out the recyclables. And I had a 180. It totally changed my perspective, these folks are crucial to the system of recycling, and yet the system is literally designed to either not include them or to be actively against them. For example, the BottleDrop system [the system in which individuals can redeem recyclable bottles and cans for the refund value, often at grocery stores or dedicated recycling centers] was not designed for them at all. It’s not designed for people with hundreds of cans. There’s actually a limit on what you can bring in and grocery stores don’t want to deal with them. Canners experience a lot of stigma and prejudice. So they mobilized something called the People’s Depot where canners can drop off large quantities– it’s run by canners so they also aren’t experiencing discrimination and stigma and being hassled and looked down upon. It’s been eye opening to see the community around it and that social structure aspect of people being able to support each other. I find waste picking to be a really rich place for thinking about how we handle materials. These are people who know how to fix a lot of things or want things to be more fixable. They pick up all different materials for resale. People are finding ways to get by in a way that fits them better than the typical system even though maybe Waste Management isn’t going to hire them to drive a truck.
Caryn: What do you think is the best way for an individual to get involved or make an impact?
Christa: I’m a big believer in advocating for structural change. A lot of folks are very passionate about zero waste, and it’s individual behavior based, right? Which I mean, I engage in a lot of that as well. I’m constantly sorting all my special recycling, all my little caps, even though I know deep down that this is not really helping. But I also work on these other things at a larger structural level. So if someone has this interest, I say engage in structural advocacy.
I’ll give one example of how I found my way into this. After graduate school, I moved to California, back to Berkeley. There was this group there that combined meditation and environmental activism all around waste [Green Sangha], they were really great. We met about once a month, there was meditation and then a talk about plastic pollution, for example, and what we can do about it. We did some activism, writing old school letters. There was a guy who was like a little Al Gore, going around showing a PowerPoint. Because it was mindfulness based, they weren’t as interested in just looking at why all these things are bad. The PowerPoint had a section that was like, here are all the reasons why we all love plastic or why plastic is great in our lives, this is what it represents and does for us. But we also recognize that it has all these different problems. So it was very much open problem solving. What can we all do to reduce these impacts in our lives? Mostly, we need corporations to change their practices or to lobby legislature to make a different policy. So I’d look for those kinds of groups. I find them to be the most helpful.
Caryn: The group you run on campus is doing things that students can get involved in, right? Can you talk a little more about that work?
Christa: Yes, I run CES, Community Environmental Services, at Portland State. It’s different from the SSC, the Student Sustainability Center. We are entirely off-campus oriented. So all my staff are students— not everyone has a huge passion for trash but I’d say 90% of them do. We do a lot of technical assistance for local projects. Right now one of our big projects is for Metro Regional Government. They are replacing the decals on cans in multifamily housing and providing signs to update multifamily enclosures with clear signage. The reason why Metro is investing so much in this is because multifamily housing has had inadequate recycling and trash services— it is an equity issue. The whole reason CES got started was actually out of a student project around improving recycling in multifamily housing, because the recycling of multifamily housing has always been lower than in single family housing and the rhetoric around it is that those people don’t care. It’s impossible to reach out to people in apartments, it’s just easier for them to throw everything out, blah blah blah. And we’ve shown for more than 30 years that actually all the services and the structures in multifamily housing are inadequate and they’re not on par with those in single family housing where you have your own little cart, a weekly service, a newsletter from the city, if you live in Portland. It’s just so much harder in multifamily housing to access that. So Metro is invested, I feel like they’ve really stepped up their efforts. So even though we are putting decals on trash cans, it actually has an equity component. It’s meant to be a step towards making services equitable for all residents, whether you live in your own single family property or an apartment. So we do that kind of work and other kinds of work.
Caryn: That’s interesting. How would you say the public perception of environmental issues and the role of waste has changed in the time you have been doing this work?
Christa: Well for people who are environmentally-minded and have always been pro-recycling, unfortunately, and I feel like this is constant, there’s been a lack of trust and if anything we’ve seen trust go down in the recycling system. It’s totally understandable that people think, why am I bothering doing all this? I think amongst certain groups, there’s more of an acknowledgment that all of the stuff is a problem, and there’s a cycle of popular news stories that say we’re drowning in our stuff. But to a lot of people, the abundance of things is just seen as a good thing, like how can we get more things to people to improve their quality of life? I don’t know if you want to specifically talk about hoarding. I think there’s been a shift in our understanding around hoarding. I have an interest in it, but I don’t have a clinical psychology background. There’s a really great group in the area called the Multnomah County Hoarding Task Force, who started up a series of workshops for the public and also do a lot of training for social workers called Buried in Treasures. There’s a total disconnect with the environmental side. So for one, hoarding disorder is mostly driven by anxiety and depression. So even though these workshops are about the problem of the stuff, the stuff is a symptom, and the real treatment needed is around helping people with their anxiety and depression, often after a loss, wanting to connect with loved ones through their things and the anxiety that comes from separating from things. So I wanted to work with that group because for some of the people, a lot of their rationale is that they want to see their things go to a good home, and I think that’s my own personal rationale for a lot of my stuff that I have too much of but can’t let go of, I just have more appropriate space and bins to put it in. It’s not squalor. Something I learned from them was that people can live in squalor, which means living in an unhealthy situation, and not have hoarding disorder. They might have executive functioning problems and they’re accumulating trash. You could also have an extensive hoarding disorder and not live in squalor, most often if you have a big enough house or more resources. People want to see their things have a life. It’s hard to think that someone else doesn’t value them or that someone can’t use them. They’re very wary of donating them to Goodwill feeling like they’re just gonna be thrown out. I just see a lot of similarities in the impulse of that with environmentalists who are trying to save or recycle for the same reasons. So I wanted to bring that into it and also maybe do some sorting and categorizing peoples’ stuff to understand what it is that causes the most problems, but that group is still very social work focused and all about delivering treatment around anxiety and the public service implementation aspect and the greater need for access to services. There are the more urgent needs and my more esoteric questions around environmental motivations aren’t as pressing. But they’re an interesting, good group. They regularly have these workshops and trainings. I hold out hope that there could be some potential overlap.
Caryn: Yeah, that is really interesting, especially because, like you’re saying, there’s so many different elements that feed into it.
Christa: It’s a way of coping. Who are we to take away people’s ways of coping? We’re all trying to find ways to cope in the world that are hopefully more adaptive than maladaptive.
Caryn: I like to ask everyone, is there anything that you collect?
Christa: I’m the processor for my community. I live in a cohousing community, and even before I lived in cohousing I did this, but if someone needs something funneled out to the community, I am your person. I deal with it and put it on my porch until someone picks it up. I don’t know if I have something specific I collect. I definitely have my own small collection of pictures of trash can and recycling bin setups all around the world. I don’t necessarily collect a set thing, but I’m always shepherding.
Caryn: That kind of leads into another question that I have. You mentioned people are often wary of recycling or wary of sending something to Goodwill that might just get thrown out, what are your personal best practices around getting rid of something?
Christa: Yeah, I’m a big fan of the local Buy Nothing groups like on Facebook. Have you used them?
Caryn: I haven’t used the Facebook ones, but I have the app and it’s great. I get all kinds of stuff from there, and give away all kinds of stuff.
Christa: One nice thing with the Facebook group, that’s also sometimes frustrating, but understandable, is you have to live in certain neighborhood boundaries to join a given group, so it really keeps it local. I also have big questions and would love to do some research on what happens to things from Buy Nothing? I don’t care if people resell things, more power to them. Some people get very upset about that. But I also wonder how much of it is being hoarded. For some people, the accumulation part of hoarding disorder is what speaks to them.
In the Portland area, we have so many phenomenal reuse groups. I moved here from the East Coast. I love the infrastructure here that’s not governmental. Like the Rebuilding Center, which has a new director and is really moving in a great direction, Community Warehouse, and all the local thrift stores. I live near Take it or Leave It, where you can consign things. There are so many baby goods stores, all the vintage shops. Or Free Geek for any kind of e-waste. Then my last resort is usually bringing things to Goodwill. I feel like they’re better than some (donation organizations). There are some groups like Veterans for America that will come and pick up your things, so people like that a lot, but they’re just selling things to secondary markets. So that all of our junk is being dumped on the Global South and destroying their clothing markets, and for the business it’s a revenue source. Whereas others like Goodwill, they sell things more locally, though they get so much more stuff, more than they could ever, ever sell locally. But we have a lot of really small local nonprofits that I think are really phenomenal. So that’s my hierarchy.
Caryn: Yeah, thank you. Are there any other recommendations you have, books to read, films to watch, things to listen to, or places to go, to wrap up?
Christa: One of my all time favorite books, if I ever am on campus, you could borrow my book, is Projects by Nikki Lee, a Korean artist, and she transforms herself. It’s fascinating to see how the way someone looks can change how we understand them. So much is based on the things that they put on themselves or have around them. In terms of other more practical things, the Institute for Local Self Reliance, I really appreciate how they think about the community’s own consumption and the ties between production and consumption. I also listen to a million podcasts. The podcast Drilled I think is a really excellent look at the oil industry and how it’s pushing for plastics as a way to save itself. They’re pivoting from making fuel to (making) stuff.
Caryn: Thank you so much for talking with me! Do you have any lingering thoughts to share?
Christa: I’m always interested in questions like, how have we gotten to this place? How are we going to move away from it? I live in cohousing, and part of the appeal of it is thinking about how much do we share? I would love to do a study, though my neighbors have not agreed to it, or I haven’t asked [laughs]. Are we reducing our consumption by living in this more shared setting? It’s a whole larger ecosystem and there are lots of different consequences of reconfiguring our structures in this way.
Dr. Christa McDermott (she/her) is a social psychologist whose work focuses on reducing consumption of resources, re-using more, using a lifecycle approach to sustainable materials management, and improving social equity and environmental health through waste prevention. She has served as a fellow in the U.S. Senate, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Energy on projects that ranged from climate change policy to toxics to energy efficiency. She holds a joint Ph.D. in Psychology and Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan where she conducted research on the relationship between personality and environmental attitudes and behaviors and has a special interest in our emotional relationships with possessions, how we construct identities through consumption, and hoarding.
Caryn Aasness (they/them) is an artist living in Portland Oregon. Caryn can be found climbing into dumpsters and pulling over to see discarded items on curbs and in alleys. Their first SoFA interview, Abandonment Issues, with their dad Jon Aasness, covered similar topics from a different angle and can be read here. You can find more of their work here.
In my first year of graduate school, I decided to just ask the questions I had, even if they embarrassed me or felt stupid. I realized it wasn’t helping me to stay quiet in the hopes that someone else would ask my questions first, or that a professor would happen to cover it. Now I find that I learn a lot by asking questions.
I work as a teacher at a preschool in Portland, and lately I’ve been attempting to conduct short interviews with my 3 to 5 year olds. In one recent interview, which happened during snack time, I talked to Ben, age 3, about his dreams.
Luz: Ben, can you tell me about a dream you had?
Ben: I had a really crazy dream.
Luz: Okay, tell me about it.
Ben: If I tell it to you, my other friends might hear it and think it might be, like, spooky.
Luz: Oh, was it a scary dream?
Ben: It wasn’t scary, it was kind of fun ‘cause I got to watch it in my brain.
I apologize to the readers because you never do get to hear the details of this crazy, spooky dream. Ben got distracted and inevitably, so did I.
I see my work as a preschool teacher as an extension of my art practice. As a socially engaged artist, I’m interested in the way conversation can be framed as a project or a piece of art. The conversations I have with 3 to 5 year olds at my work are sweet and weird, funny, but also often profound.
Our task for this issue of SoFA Journal was to speak with someone associated with Portland State University, so I decided to conduct a similar interview with some of my colleagues. I wanted the questions to be direct, but leave room for stories, as I have tried to do with my preschoolers. I asked my colleagues about karaoke, what was on their mind that they thought worth sharing, for something they recommend, and, as a bonus, a little show and tell.
Luz Blumenfeld: What is your current go-to karaoke song?
Olivia DelGandio: Karaoke makes me anxious and I will never do it.
Morgan Hornsby: My first and favorite karaoke performance was “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” by Shania Twain, with my friend Jordan at a bar in her hometown.
Ashley Yang-Thompson: Phantom of the Opera. I don’t think there could possibly be a better karaoke song, but I’m willing to be proved wrong.
Marissa Perez: I don’t really do karaoke! Maybe I’ve done it twice? And the songs I chose were: Rockin’ Robin and I Can’t Make You Love Me. I think they were both bad options so if you have any good suggestions I’ll take them.
Caryn Aasness: I don’t really ever sing karaoke, I think I might be working my way up to it or maybe I’m just building up a list of songs I think would be fun but will never perform. On the current list of possible songs though, is, Tempted by Squeeze (I love any song that lists objects), I’m the Man by Joe Jackson (about a cartoonish conman, “I got the trash and you got the cash so baby we should get along fine”) and Too Busy Thinking About My Baby by Marvin Gaye which I listen to at least three times in a row every time I drive my car.
Luz: What is something you want to tell me about right now?
Olivia: My little brother had his first girlfriend (he’s in 11th grade) and he really liked her for like a week and my mom just told me he broke up with her because she wanted attention all the time. Last time I was home he told me he was thinking about having sex and he also drove me around a bunch. It’s such a wild thing to watch someone you love so much grow up and experience the world for the first time. It fills me with love and nostalgia.
Morgan: I just discovered the album Preacher’s Daughter by Ethel Cain and can’t stop listening. I also love the photos taken of her by Silken Weinberg.
Ash: When I was in the 8th grade, I had a habit of polling my classmates on various topics (How do you fall asleep at night? What kind of mental illness do you have?) (the latter question got me sent to the principal’s office) which I compiled into my first book ever called, “I’m normal and everybody else is crazy.” I was very excited about this project, so my AIM username was imnotcrazy93 and so was my YouTube account.
Marissa: I want to tell you about how much I love talking to friends on the phone. I just talked to two friends today and it made me feel so good. And then I listened to that song by Labi Siffre called “Bless the Telephone” and you know, he’s right.
Caryn: I want to tell you about this thing that happened when I was in elementary school that I think about a lot. I think I’d like to use it in a project somehow someday but mostly because I want an excuse to keep talking about it and figure out how to best get the peculiarity across.
At the audition for the Helen Keller Elementary School talent show, about 2004, 2 girls showed up and sang I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world somewhat unenthusiastically but in relative unison and a cappella. The PTA mom running the show told them they needed a backing track, a CD to sing along with. The next rehearsal they brought a CD with the song but it had the words so the PTA mom tried to explain to the confused 2nd or 3rd graders that the CD needed to have the instruments but no one singing. That must have been the last conversation they had about it because on the night of the talent show the girls sang with the same intensity and lack of enthusiasm to what must have been the only CD they could find in somebody’s dad’s collection that seemed to fit the requirements: I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world backed up by completely unrelated instrumental smooth jazz.
Luz: What do you recommend?
Olivia: Annie’s white cheddar mac and cheese. I shouldn’t eat it because it makes my stomach hurt but it’s so good and it is a major safe food at the moment. You don’t pick the safe food, the safe food chooses you, right?
Morgan: I recommend writing letters to people you love.
Ash: I recommend being wrong about your most deeply ingrained beliefs.
Marissa: Charli XCX. She’s great. I’ve been listening to a couple of her albums since the summer.
Caryn: I recommend asking this exact question! People give great answers.
I also recommend asking people what their favorite question to ask other people is, and then asking their favorite question back to them.
I also recommend tying your shoes in a nontraditional way, eating Cheerios and goldfish mixed together as a snack, wearing a short sleeve t shirt over a long sleeve t shirt to please your inner child, getting audiobooks from the public library, and the documentary Dogtown and Z-boys.
Luz: And, lastly, the optional bonus: Show & Tell, which is something my preschoolers do every week. Their favorite question to ask each other about the shared object is, “What do you like about it?”
It’s a groundhog made out of rice krispies that I saw at the Groundhog Day party Marissa brought me to last weekend. I love thinking about the time and energy someone put into making this.
Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is a transdisciplinary socially engaged artist. Third generation from Oakland, California, they currently live and work in Portland, Oregon. Their practice involves teaching, listening, observing, and taking notes. Luz is in their second year of PSU’s Art & Social Practice MFA program. You can view their work on their website and their Instagram.
Olivia DelGandio (she/they) is a storyteller who asks intimate questions and normalizes answers in the form of ongoing conversations. They explore grief, memory, and human connection and look for ways of memorializing moments and relationships. Through their work, they hope to make the world a more tender place.
Morgan Hornsby (she/her) is a photographer and socially engaged artist. She was born in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky and currently lives in Tennessee. Her photographic work has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, NPR, Vox, The Guardian, New York Magazine, and The Marshall Project.
Ashley Yang-Thompson is a ninety-nine time Pulitzer Prize winning poet and a certified MacArthur genius.
Marissa Perez (she/her) grew up in Portland, Oregon. She is a printmaker, party host, babysitter and youth worker. She’s interested in neighborhoods and the layers of relationships that can be hard to see. Her dad was a mail carrier for 30 years and her mom is a pharmacist.
Caryn Aasness (they/them) is an artist living in Portland Oregon. They love asking and answering questions. You can find more of their work here.
Joaquin and I met in October 2021, as first-year students in PSU’s Contemporary Art Practice program. Ever since then, we’ve been talking about sex and anuses and poop and our daily existential crises. Whenever I talk to Joaquin, I write things down; it’s as if I’m pulling a cassette tape of poetry out of his mouth. Who else describes their hair as a “persian cat in a rainstorm?” Or their visage as an “anthropomorphic catsuit?” Joaquin is a professional illustrator; he has a weekly comic about the previous week’s events called “GAYMO.” I also consider him to be an unprofessional expert in contemporary queerness. He is the only person who has ever sent me a picture of their poop, and I’ve asked a lot of people. When he isn’t fulfilling his ontological imperative to draw, Joaquin is having diarrhea.
Ashley Yang-Thompson: Why do you think you have so much diarrhea?
Joaquin Golez: Good question. I think there’s a few answers. I think it’s a combination of things. We contain multitudes. I’ve been violently lactose intolerant since I was a baby. I was allergic to my mother’s breast milk. When I would breastfeed I had explosive diarrhea.
Joaquin: Yeah, I have mommy issues. She let me know right away– as early as I can remember being able to hear stories. My dad’s parents are indigenous people from other countries, so they did not encounter lactose in their countries. They’re both from fishing villages, so no cows. I look pretty white on the outside, but my intestines are very indigenous. And so they react to pretty much everything in this climate. Furthermore, as a Virgo rising, all of my stress manifests physically in the form of rashes or intestinal distress.
Another reason why I have diarrhea is because I’m a bottom.
Ash: Do you get diarrhea from being violently pegged?
Joaquin: Yeah. I feel like I’m a power bottom.
Ash: How do you become a power bottom?
Joaquin: I think it’s confidence. It’s a combination of selfishness and selflessness, where I’m really meeting my own needs, but I’m also empathically aware of the needs of another person. The right kind of selfishness empowers me to be a very aggressive bottom.
Ash: Have you ever pooped during sex?
Joaquin: Almost, but not quite. I’ve definitely farted quite a few times and I’ve peed.
Joaquin: Both intentionally and unintentionally.
My diarrhea is like a family heirloom. My dad is always pooping, too. I inherited his intestines.
Ash: When you were growing up, was your dad primarily in the bathroom?
Joaquin: I would say 30% of the time. We talk about our diarrhea a lot, and it really bothers my white mom. She can’t relate to it because she likes dairy. My dad and I try to take ownership over our poop issues by joking about it and talking about it a lot. And our bathroom habits are really loud compared to my mom, who swears to this day that she doesn’t poop. She says she deposits a single rose scented cube once a month. Which we all know isn’t true. But still I’ve never smelled it or heard it. So there’s a hierarchy there.
Ash: Do you feel ashamed about your diarrhea?
Joaquin: It’s a shame that I own.
Ash: We’ve always talked about diarrhea openly, and I never felt remotely grossed out. I mean, we’re talking about diarrhea and I’m eating my lunch and it doesn’t bother me at all.
Joaquin: I just know that every time I eat, I’ll have so much IBS stuff. It’s always present. It’s definitely normalized.
Ash: So your diarrhea is tied to both your racial identity and to your queer identity.
Joaquin: Yeah, that’s a good point. I haven’t made that connection. Maybe that’s why I’m so proud of it.
Ash: Ok, now I have a big queer politics question to ask you: Does it bother you that companies like Target and Urban Outfitters have co-opted queerness and pride, and use identity as a promotional tool?
Joaquin: I don’t think it bothers me in the way it bothers some people because I love the feeling of being a normal person with money. I like having cultural value. I like to imagine my child-self going to Target and being able to comfortably consume like everybody else in America. I want to be included in predominant culture. I want to be a market. It’s normalizing, and I don’t mind being normalized. I would love to comfortably go to the bathroom and date– why is that bad? I think it’s great! No matter how normal being queer might be in a predominant culture, it still has enough stigmas where it’s fun and racy. There’s still queer gay bars, there’s still legislation trying to destroy people’s lives, there’s still places where being queer is very taboo. It’s something I appreciate about sex, too. I want to be comfortable enough to express myself and explore, and because it’s sex, it’s always going to have an edge of tabooness that’s going to make it fun and hot. To me, it can’t be too safe. Everything that I am into has become so basic that it’s codified in some Target end-cap display, and I think that’s hilarious.
Ash: In a milieu where almost everyone is queer (i.e. Portland, art school), does it bother you that anybody can claim queerness, without having the sort of experiences that you’ve gone through?
Joaquin: You said something once that I thought was really true, you said that people need rituals and initiations to step into different cultural territories. And I think it would help people to have initiations. I don’t think those initiations have to be oppressive. They could be celebratory.
I guess that’s when the queer marketability gets in the way, like during Pride, which is supposed to be an initiation, but instead it’s about getting everybody to buy Absolut Vodka. There’s so much alcoholism in queer communities and so much drug abuse, so companies like that taking over Pride is a problem.
But back to anybody being able to say they’re queer… I feel like if I said it doesn’t bother me, I’d be lying. It bothers me because I have an ego. When it does bother me, I have to check myself because I’ve literally been there. I’ve been super super trans but still not validated as being trans because I wasn’t on hormones. Or because I didn’t grow up wanting to play with trucks.
It’s not a great narrative for your pain or your oppression to be what makes you who you are. I understand people saying, Oh you’re not x enough because you haven’t suffered the way I have, but if that’s what defines your identity, then that’s an opposition to marginalized people having success.
Ash: Do you think success and suffering are diametrically opposed?
Joaquin: People don’t thrive when they’re suffering. Thriving can come out of suffering but it doesn’t happen when you’re in it. Unless you’re a masochist.
Ash: I feel like suffering is a fundamental part of any growth.
Joaquin: I think so too.
Ash: You have to go through a threshold and the threshold is uncomfortable, maybe even unbearable. You’re entering a new form like a plant that has to break the sheath of a seed in order to grow.
Joaquin: I think the friction and discomfort is important, but I don’t think we need to have specific, terrible experiences and all share them as a certain identity. There should be people having shared identity with different experiences.
Ash: Do you believe in universal experience?
Joaquin: Yeah, we all die and suffer and get hungry and have diarrhea.
Ash: Some more than others.
Ashley Yang-Thompson (I respectfully opt out of the protocol to include pronouns) is a ninety-nine time Pulitzer Prize winning poet and a certified MacArthur genius. ashleyyangthompson.com @leaky_rat
Joaquin Golez (he/him) is an illustrator, writer, and tattoo artist. He is currently getting his MFA in Contemporary Art Practice at Portland State University. @bruisedfroot
Last fall, my first term in the program, I had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for Emily Fitzgerald’s digital photography class. Her own background in social practice was evident throughout the class, but especially during the final project, where students created images for seniors at the Washington County Disability, Aging, and Veteran Services (DAVS). This project culminated in an exhibition where seniors could engage with the students and their work in-person. It was a great example of how social practice could show up in a classroom setting.
This term, since I am in a pedagogy class, I have been thinking a lot about how I want to function as a socially engaged artist and educator. In doing so, I’ve been reflecting on my experience in Emily’s class, how she chose to teach, and the effect it had on the students and their own photography practices. For this conversation, I got to talk with Emily more about our shared experience last semester and hear about her personal relationship to art and teaching.
Morgan Hornsby: How would you describe your practice?
Emily Fitzgerald: I would say that I’m a socially engaged artist and that I am interested in collective storytelling and collaborative image making. I have a background in photography and I use expanded documentary practices in a lot of my work.
Morgan: Do you consider teaching a part of your practice or something that’s separate?
Emily: I feel like it varies, and at different times I feel like it’s part of my practice. The exhibition that we did at the end of last term felt connected to my art practice. I definitely feel like it’s connected to my art practice, and there are times when I’m doing community workshops that are part of my practice. Teaching at the university level feels like it’s connected to my practice, but not necessarily a part of it, if that makes sense. It informs my practice, and my practice informs teaching, but it definitely is not always under the umbrella of my socially engaged art practice. I definitely think I’d be a different educator, if I wasn’t a socially engaged artist, and a different artist if I wasn’t an educator.
Morgan: How do they inform each other, your work as a socially engaged artist and your work as an educator?
Emily: One of the ways in which I teach that feels very important to me is that I teach in a very relational way, and in a collaborative way. And some courses, it’s easier. Like right now I’m teaching a design thinking class in university studies that isn’t set up to be collaborative— it’s not in the art department, and it’s a much bigger group of students. But then I’m working with a lot of the same students from our photography class last semester this term for an intermediate photography course.
I think often there’s some sort of educational component, not teaching, but a workshop type model, that is part of my social practice. And I feel like the way I teach is very relational, which is also how I work as an artist. It’s very collaborative. So for instance, last term with the students that you worked with, the installation of the exhibition was completely collaborative, which was kind of a mess, and took a long time, but all the decisions were made together. The title of the show, which images were curated, and how things were hung— all of these things were collaboratively decided with the students. So I wasn’t saying okay, this is the way we’re going to do it, and I’m going to teach you how to do it. They’re really learning by doing and so I think that feels connected. And then the Washington County project felt like a social practice project in some ways because it was bridging two groups of people that wouldn’t often be connected, and it had a storytelling component. The students were making work for the senior citizens and the seniors were sharing their stories about the students’ work. So it was twofold in that way.
Morgan: Can you say more about the origin of the Washington County project?
Emily: So that project started right at the beginning of the pandemic, at the beginning of 2020. I had never taught class remotely, and so I was thinking about ways to make it feel engaging and connecting, and to have a community-based component when everyone was on lockdown and at home by themselves. I connected with this woman from Washington County DAVS, and she said that all the seniors were in isolation, that they weren’t getting to see many people and they weren’t getting much mail. So the first iteration of the project was the students making images with engagement prompts that Washington County DAVS would then turn into postcards, and those postcards were mailed out to senior citizens in isolation. And so the seniors would look at the images and read the engagement prompts, or their caregivers would, and then they would have conversations about what they saw in the images. The assignment was for the students to construct an image— instead of a documentary photograph or a landscape or portrait, they were supposed to construct something that was whimsical and fun, and engaging, and maybe had a twist or brought in a question. Each student would have one image selected, and they could choose to participate, to opt in or opt out. So if they wanted to make work that was more provocative than Washington County felt okay with, they could opt out. So they were still making work for themselves. When the postcards were mailed out at the end of the course, they also got a set of the postcards from all their other classmates.
So that was the first iteration. And we did that many times, for several terms. And then last term when you were the TA, that was the first time I was back in person with the students, and we decided we wanted to do an exhibition at the end of the term. Instead of mailing the postcards, senior citizens could come to PSU and view students’ work and engage in those conversations in person. And we had an exhibition.
Morgan: How was the exhibition?
Emily: It was mostly great. There were definitely some bumps and hurdles, I think working with bureaucracy can be that way. One thing that happened was that I was explicitly clear that I wanted all the students’ names on vinyl along with the title of the exhibition. And there was some misunderstanding, where the person that was the gallery coordinator, and the person working with the graphic designer at PSU, just had my name printed and cut, which felt really incorrect. So we did get to use that experience to have a conversation around authorship, and we did remedy it by printing the students’ names, even though it’s not the same as vinyl. So that felt difficult. And Washington County wanted the frames back after the exhibition, which they paid for, but thinking about reciprocity, I felt like the students should receive the frames since their work was being professionalized and utilized for this purpose. So there were challenges on a lot of levels.
Also, the representative from Washington County DAVS said that the image selected for the flyer didn’t feel appropriate, which was really confusing, because it didn’t feel like a provocative image at all.
We had these conversations around who makes the image, who has the agency, and who makes the choices on what’s being shown. And we, as a class, talked about what to keep in the show, because some of the students did create work that could be seen as challenging or provocative for a bureaucratic organization like Washington County DAVS or for senior citizens. There was some nudity, there was some text. But we decided that we wanted to leave everything in the show, and that if the representative from Washington County didn’t feel comfortable with those images being in the show, then she could make that decision. And she didn’t make the decision to take them out.
It was interesting, because what felt hard or challenging from the senior citizens’ perspective weren’t the images that we thought would be. It was all senior citizens with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and they came, and there were some great conversations. The students stood by their work and some of them asked them the prompts they had written. But most of them just had conversations about the pieces and what they saw, what it reminded them of, what it made them feel. It was such a learning process to make work for a certain audience rather than for your peers and class critique. So I think in that way, it was really great.
Morgan: Yeah, even with complications and challenges, it’s really cool that the students got to go through that with you. I think those are learning experiences that translate to everything in life, not just photography. Working with people is complicated.
Morgan: One thing I really enjoyed about being in your class was seeing how different the work of each student was. Everybody was making such different things. It felt like over the course of that ten weeks, each person’s style became more and more their own.
Emily: Yeah, I think so too. I think I was just so impressed by how much they all grew and are continuing to grow in their voice and their style and developing concepts that are important and meaningful to them.
Morgan: Is there a way you try to cultivate that or does it just kind of naturally happen?
Emily: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I ask the students to give me feedback at the end of the term, which is one of the ways. One of the things that they said that I thought was really nice is that in so many art classes, they feel like the instructors are teaching them a certain way to learn their style, or a style that they need to emulate. But in this course, they said that they felt empowered to find their own style and voice.
I do like to give a lot of agency and choice throughout the term. There are definitely technical assignments and benchmarks that they need to meet, and a basis of technical skill that I want them to learn and build and then be able to speak to, and a critical lens that I want them to use in terms of evaluating work. And then also, on top of that, I think it’s so important for them to be able to think conceptually, and for them to be able to understand why they like work, and to support them in finding why something works for them, or why something feels meaningful. And that’s different for everyone. So I think maybe it’s like a value that I place around agency and choice.
And I find that when I have more agency, I’m more engaged and committed and dedicated to something. So I think I want to give students agency too— if they’re interested in what we’re doing, they’re going to be more involved.
I’m not sure, what did you see in class?
Morgan: Yeah, I think that you’re right, that part of it is the level of agency. I think it also helps that you showed so many examples of photography, so that everyone can find something that is exciting to them. Over the course of the term, I felt like I witnessed many students become incredibly dedicated, and take photography very seriously. I felt like you did a good job of offering agency and choice while maintaining a high standard, or a high expectation of effort. The combination really seemed to work with the students.
I really liked seeing students find photography they were excited about, because I know how cool that feeling is, to find work that is really inspiring, or that is connected to your practice or the way you see the world in some way. One of my favorite parts of class was getting to show students work I thought they might connect with, to be part of that excitement.
Emily: Yeah, I really appreciated that you were coming in with often more contemporary photographers or people that you felt would resonate with that particular person’s style. And I thought that was so helpful. The more voices are always better, so it’s always better to have more people and more perspectives. And I think that’s also like having your eyes as well as my eyes giving feedback, that’s so helpful. I love having guests critiquers for that reason.
How do you feel like your pedagogy or being an educator is connected to your practice?
Morgan: I’m still thinking about that, but being in your class really made me excited about teaching photography in the future. I’m grateful for the education I had in photojournalism, but it was a lot more narrow. In your class, it really felt like students found their voices.
And with the exhibition, I saw a great example of how teaching through a social practice lens could look, how it could be really inspiring and offer new possibilities. But from the beginning, I saw how social practice was showing up in the classroom.
Emily: Do you feel like it was showing up outside of that project?
Morgan: In the level of agency, yeah. Definitely in that project, but I think the level of agency throughout and knowing that it was building to that project.
Emily: I could definitely see it in that way. It’s really collaborative. Like this week in the intermediate course, the assignment was for them to collaborate with one of their classmates, which was an idea that came from the students last term saying that they wish they had an opportunity to collaborate with each other. So some of them are assisting, some of them are helping fill the set, and some of them are models. All different things. And not all social practices are collaborative, but all of my work as a socially engaged artist is collaborative. And so that feels also really important. It’s been so nice to see how they built a community in this course, and really know each other’s work and style. They can give feedback with the understanding of someone’s goals as an artist and I feel like that’s such valuable feedback. I got so much of that in the program, through being able to work with the same people over those three years. And now I’m still collaborating with several folks from the program. So to really know someone as a person, but also as an artist, is such an incredibly special thing.
Morgan: I think you told me this before we started class, but you really do get to know people differently when you’re looking at images of each other’s lives together every week. It does build a kind of intimacy and community. To me, that feels like what social practice is about: enhancing interaction through art and enhancing art through interaction.
In that way, I saw social practice coming up in critique, when we were all looking at and talking about images together and how it did build a sense of community.
Emily: It’s so different to see people through their images, to see how they see. For this course, they’re doing a term-long project where they’re creating a series or a body of work around a concept that they’ll then present in whatever form they choose, so it could be images on the wall, or it could be a book or it could be an interactive slideshow, it could be anything. So we’re going to talk about form, and then they’ll have some additional interdisciplinary components like audio or text or drawing or sculpture.
It feels like such a gift to see people grow and evolve as artists. It’s so cool to see people who had never picked up a camera become really dedicated to the practice, and to be making amazing work.
Morgan Hornsby (she/her) is a photographer and socially engaged artist. She was born in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky and currently lives in Tennessee. Her photographic work has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, NPR, Vox, The Guardian, New York Magazine, and The Marshall Project. www.morganhornsby.com @morganhornsby
Emily Fitzgerald (she/her) is a socially-engaged artist, photographer, storyteller, and educator. Through her work, she investigates what it means to collectively tell a story, equally prioritize the relational and the aesthetic, collaboratively make conceptual and visual decisions, and co-author a body of work with the ‘subject.’ Her work is responsive, participatory, and site-specific. Emily brings large-scale art installations into non-traditional, public, and unexpected places in order to deepen our understanding and reframe our ways of relating to one another. She is the co-founder of MATTER gallery and Works Progress Agency. Emily teaches photography, art, and Design Thinking at Portland State University. https://www.efitzgerald.com
I’m interested in exploring cultural practices for my second year in the program. Part and parcel of our everyday cultural practices is Critical Race Theory (CRT) which has formalized how race and ethnicity can overtly and covertly impact our personal, social, and political. For me, coming from a majority white conservative town in Indiana, learning about CRT through contemporary Asian American Feminisms was cathartic. But I only learned about CRT through academic settings or books. I only started to learn CRT in everyday contexts through working at a youth neighborhood design program, Your Street Your Voice, where we heavily relied on the groundbreaking work from Space Matters, a student participatory action research project by Dr. Amara H. Pérez and her students.
Local organizer, researcher, and educator Dr. Pérez has been working in and with communities of color, especially youth, for over 25 years. She was contracted last year to work on the Portland State University Gateway Center project where the new Art + Design program will be housed. In this, she created a paid temporary cohort of art students of color to connect CRT and Spatial Theory and apply it to the plans of the new building. I immediately applied to be a part of the cohort to learn from Dr. Pérez and I had the capacity to be part of 3 meetings. As expected, Dr. Pérez held space and change for her students. The following interview dives deeper into how and why Dr. Pérez melds the everyday and theory to shift culture and therefore power.
Lillyanne Pham: During the summer as one of your BIPOC student cohort members to help design the new Art + Design Building at Portland State University, you asked us to find a “hidden curriculum” in our everyday routines that shows space serving the dominant cis white hetero ableist English-speaking culture. How do you show the definition of and power of “hidden curriculum” to your students?
Dr. Amara H. Pérez: I learned about the hidden curriculum as a student at Portland State University when I was getting my master’s in the PACE (Postsecondary Adult and Continuing Education) program. I took a curriculum course and one single article in there was about the hidden curriculum. This concept comes from the late 60s and this article applied it to space. It was research done by a scholar who was comparing the built environment of a law school to the built environment of a social work school on the same college campus. It blew my mind. It helped me to consider the idea of the hidden curriculum and built environments for the first time. I was able to think about how space is essentially communicating socializing messages.
Flash forward to many years later, I am a doctoral student in a program and I took a course outside of my department about spatial theory – the idea that space was not neutral. It brought me back to the hidden curriculum of campus space. I was teaching at the time and I thought this is really fascinating. If the built environment is a hidden curriculum, that means that everything around us can essentially be imagined as text, or as a lesson plan, that is teaching us dominant value and belief systems.
I thought, I don’t know exactly how to teach this except to invite my students to actually help me explore this question. So, I started developing methods to engage students in the conversation. When I was teaching that term, I had six students in the class, they all identified as women, and they were majority women of color. We decided that would be one of the focuses of our term together. We had class in a different space every single week, and they got to pick where we would have class. We spent the first 15-20 minutes looking around together and asking this question, “how is this built environment communicating socializing messages?” We had class once at Bojangles, a fast-food restaurant. We had class at this outdoor bell tower and at the library. We just started doing it together as co-researchers. It helped all of us understand what this particular concept meant, as it applied to the built environment.
I was also learning more about the hidden curriculum in the doctoral program, and began to understand it in the more traditional way, which is the basic idea that school is teaching you more than reading, writing, and math. And it’s teaching you these things that are often not discussed. My approach to teaching the hidden curriculum has actually best been facilitated through discussions about space.
What has been the most powerful for me is to invite students to pay attention to their everyday routines and built environments, take pictures of those, and bring them to a collective collaborative process where we analyze them together. I think what became the clearest were bathrooms because bathrooms were so intimately and in familiar ways, tied to gender. Bathrooms and fences were really good starting places, along with traditional classrooms. These were three spaces that anybody could sort of say, “Yeah, I can see how it’s doing this work of socializing us into dominant values.” What gets more interesting is when we can move beyond those spaces and start looking at other less obvious signs of that curriculum.
My approach has been to create an opportunity where people are applying it right away to their own routines and lived experiences, but then we’re analyzing those in a group. It’s more of an engaged kind of applied theory. And the hidden curriculum has been less of a theoretical framework and more of a conceptual framework for understanding hiddenness – how power hides. Very little of the hidden curriculum literature goes outside of educational settings, nor does it look at built environments. I love taking that concept out of education and putting it in other places and spaces. So we can see it as a socializing mechanism, not just living in educational settings, but in all settings.
Lillyanne: I love how your class got to choose their own spaces to learn. This helps to make things click even more because they have the power to choose where they can learn and what they want to learn. Is this a part of your process? To use their personal experiences as part of your curriculum rather than have students navigate their personal experiences on their own?
Dr. Pérez: The other part of that is to invite and acknowledge identity to that conversation. When I use the hidden curriculum, what I love about it is it invites the concept of “reading space”. When we talk about our identities and our lived experiences, that informs how we read space. For some people reading space as in service to the gender binary is really clear depending on their lived experience. Others may be totally oblivious, which is why I think analyzing space through the concept of the hidden curriculum ought to be done in collective, collaborative ways. So we can begin to understand how space is acting beyond our lived experience and find the commonalities in that.
What I love about reading space is that we all have spatial sensibilities, but they can be dormant. To me, social justice curriculum activates those spatial sensibilities to increase critical awareness of space. This feeling of having lived experiences, feeling validated, learning a new language to name the things that we know are happening, but maybe don’t really know that there’s a word for like hegemony and systemic oppression means something. All this language can help validate our lived experiences. But more importantly, this helps us understand how power and privilege sustain themselves. The hidden curriculum is that entry point that’s really accessible because it’s grounded in your lived experience. And it is validated by a collective lived experience. And it lends itself to an increased awareness in ways that I think are often hard to design a curriculum around as an educator.
Lillyanne: You had our cohort go through a whole day of training on Critical Race Theory with Spatial Theory. While we had varying levels of racial equity consciousness within a U.S. context, you were still able to help us find solidarity with each other and increase folks’ consciousness within a day. What do you think it takes for educators of all levels and disciplines to have the tools to do this type of work? You mentioned educators should work with the everyday to make learning more accessible. I was wondering about educators who have no experience in social justice education, but there are students who are demanding it. How do you start this type of work?
Dr. Pérez: Great question. I’m so glad you asked that because I don’t often get to talk about it. I am a former Youth Community Organizer. I was trained through an organization in Oakland, California called the Center for Third World Organizing where I got an internship to start my career in grassroots organizing. After that internship, I worked at Sisters in Action for Power for 12-13 years.
Part of my training as an organizer was in popular education, a methodology most associated with Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator. Organizers do an incredible amount of education. But it’s often very theoretical. As people who are trying to change and transform systems of power, we can’t do that work without theory. But it often gets named something else, and we often don’t recognize it as theory.
Popular education is an approach that brings people together to talk about issues, to understand those issues as problems, to talk about lived experiences and perspectives, to think about the causes, to understand the consequences, and ultimately get to a place of action, and an action that can be facilitated and coordinated by the very people who are most affected by those issues.
For me, that training was parallel to my training as an organizer. I spent a lot of time being trained at Highlander, which is very famous for its contributions to social justice work in the South. And my training happened from the work I did at Sisters in Action. My role there was to help create a comprehensive educational program that would teach middle school and high school girls of color about systems of domination and systems of inequity, all as a way to have a critical eye towards organizing campaigns, issue campaigns, where, members of Sisters in Action, were taking on the housing authority, Portland Public Schools, and other institutions to fight for local change.
What’s important to that action work is an analysis of understanding power and privilege. If you don’t understand power and privilege, you’re likely to say we don’t feel safe, we need more cops. But nobody going through an understanding of power and privilege would be demanding that. So we realized early on that an ongoing comprehensive political education program was critical, and all of that curriculum was developed in-house and not just mostly through me.
As girls grew up in the organization, I was able to work with a cohort of teenagers who had been involved at Sisters in Action since they were 11 years old and who worked with me and without me to continue to create that curriculum and facilitate those conversations across a range of issues that we addressed in those 13 years.
So I think, again, part of that is really formal training in popular education. And then I think it came from 15 years of practice. It’s also why I don’t feel comfortable in an academic classroom. I’ve tried teaching in universities and colleges and it doesn’t click for me. It’s harder to practice popular education in a formal classroom. So I love trainings and leadership programs because it’s perfect for that. I think that those kinds of conversations, as you can imagine, always lead to action. So I would say popular education is not just about curriculum, it’s about understanding your role as a facilitator. I call myself an educator, but I probably think of myself more as a facilitator than a traditional educator. So I attribute that training and that experience, early in my career, as part of what I think makes for really transformative workshops and trainings that I’ve been a part of.
Lillyanne: My first exposure to your work was Space Matters. It was especially important to me in my work with Jackie Santa Lucia and ridhi d’cruz at Your Street Your Voice, and it also became your Cultural Foundations of Education, Ph.D. dissertation. I was wondering how that project transformed your present-day practice? And what was an underlying lesson from it that isn’t usually highlighted?
Dr. Pérez: That project changed everything for me. It was initially supposed to be a four-month project. The project came about when Portland Community College (PCC) wanted to introduce Critical Race Theory (CRT) to the Office of Planning and Capital Construction.
What many people don’t know and is really important is that in this project, none of us knew what we were doing. To some extent, none of us knew what we would learn, and none of us knew the answers. I knew how to build a leadership team, to train students, to create curriculum, and research methodologies. So there are a lot of things I knew how to do that would get the ball rolling, but we didn’t know what we would discover.
I have to tell you that I thought many times, What if we discover nothing? What if there’s no answer to this question that we have, which is, what’s the relationship between race and space? What I appreciate most is that there was nothing we were trying to replicate. It freed us up to do some fabulous work, and to really see it as an exploration of questions. And we had support from the college to do that. We also felt like anything we learned would at least be more than what we knew when we started. We learned to trust the process.
There’s so much we learned that you can find and read about when you search Space Matters at PCC. I came to really appreciate and lean into the “we don’t know.” I think it’s helpful to say, We still are trying to understand how the built environment normalizes whiteness. We’re still trying to figure that out. What I know is that CRT says it does. I believe that and so I’m just trying to figure out how. I really push back against outcome-driven processes, and lean into more of the process-oriented approach to any given project.
I think CRT not only helps us understand how space acts, but can help us understand how our institutional practices are getting in the way. That’s the real change that we need to be focusing on and I love that too. It’s not about, “What’s inclusive space?” It’s about, “What’s inclusive design?” Forget the outcome because that’s our problem. We think there’s a checklist waiting to be discovered that would just give us the formula for inclusive space. There’s no such thing. Never gonna happen. But every single project helped me to see how the design practices are the problem and the educational institution is getting in the way.
Lillyanne: Your work has been deeply connected to institutions. Over the span of years, how have you defined your role in and personal barriers against institutions?
Dr. Pérez: As a young organizer, I saw myself working outside of the system to make change. I would say 6-7 years into it, I started realizing that the organization we were building, as much as I loved it, non-profit was being modeled largely from a business/corporate structure. In that, there were many complexities, contradictions, and problems. Are you familiar with The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence?
Dr. Pérez: So, there was a group of us who contributed to that text. I realized it’s not just the institution. There’s something about building an institution and building an institution that is funded by philanthropy. You’re likely going to replicate the very same structures and culture and system you are working to change. So I got really disillusioned and decided I didn’t want to do my organizing work in a 501(c)(3), nonprofit structure.
That was not a popular position at the time. Many organizers believe that being paid as an organizer was a victory that people fought really long and hard for. And building our own organizations was going to help us build the power we needed to bring about the change that we wanted. My experience was I saw us replicating the very harmful cultures that won’t sustain a movement. So, when I left Sisters in Action, I decided I would not be part of a nonprofit to do grassroots community organizing. Then it’s like, how am I going to take care of myself? I thought I’m still going to work with students to make a change, but within an institution and within education.
So, I started working at Portland Community College as the Director of the Multicultural Center, and loved the work then realized too much of my work is about trying to improve and build an institution again. Let’s be real. That’s never gonna happen. I’m like, there’s no escaping it! Every institution is a problem. So, you just have to decide what your niche and role are going to be. Then I went back to school and found myself doing consulting more and more.
The advantage to consulting is my energy is not going towards building or sustaining an institution. I get to work on a project that I can stand behind and put my energies into supporting it without feeling like I am promoting an institution, or improving an institution that I know is never going to happen. I identify as an educator. My parents are educators. I love educational settings. I felt like this is where I want to be but as a consultant. There are disadvantages. I miss being part of a team. As a consultant, I don’t have that. My team is always changing. They’re often interdisciplinary teams of people learning about power and equity for the first time.
What feels right to me is the distance between me and the institution. I respect people who are doing work in institutions. It’s just not where I want to put my energy. I definitely want to partner with institutions and organizations and firms. I like to help people think about how to change the culture of the firm, and the organization, and change practices and policies. I feel like I’m good at that. But I want to see the end date of my time on that project. I am now in my early 50s. I think that my role is different in that regard. You know, where I want to put my energy and focus is much more project-based than anything else now.
Lillyanne: I definitely resonate with everything you’re saying. I’ve been trying to run away from non-profits and universities and find myself back in them but with a new boundary between myself and them. I’ve also found myself experiencing the downsides of solo consulting.
Dr. Pérez: I’ll get emails that say, “I heard about your work. I was wondering if you will partner with us on a project, We’re going to be working on X.” I’m thinking to myself, I don’t know you. I don’t know if we have a shared lens and understanding of practicing racial equity. I don’t work like that. But the pressure to work like that… in this world of design and planning, you don’t have to know each other. It took me a while to be confident. For me, I had to stay true to myself and true to my practice, knowing all the contradictions exist. But seeing myself, I work for critical race theory, that’s my boss. You’ve got to be your own moral compass, your own political compass. You’ve got to be turning inward all the time to make sure that what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, and who you’re doing it with is congruent with your values and your commitments. So, you can do the work you want to do on your own terms, especially as a woman of color.
Lillyanne: That’s so true. At the end of the day, sometimes you just want to give up and quit being an organizer too. Then you’re back in these situations and you find a little bit of magic. It’s the cycle and you need to constantly be attuned to yourself. I was also wondering throughout this whole process what or who has been exciting in your present-day practice?
Dr. Pérez: I would say that what I find most exciting is working with students as co-researchers. I find that the students I get to work with are so fucking brilliant, so thoughtful, and so curious. And I am inspired by how being a part of a cohort changes their understanding of systemic inequity, the trajectory of their own research, their own studies, their own sort of career goals, which excites me and motivates me so much in ways that nothing else does. That’s my first answer. Others include Mabel O. Wilson, an architect, designer, and scholar who writes a lot about race and architecture and legal scholar and geographer, David Delaney. I love their work. I also love my favorite CRT scholars: Daniel Solorzano, Lindsay Perez Huber, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. And I think people who are using art as their sort of tool for change inspire me in ways that other methods don’t. I felt really excited about working with all the art and design students this term. I’ve never worked with this community before. And being involved with these students for a whole term in analyzing studio space and gallery space has helped me to understand whiteness in ways that I wouldn’t have understood. This co-learning feeds me.
Lillyanne Phạm (b. 1997; LP/they/bạn/she/em/chị) is a cultural organizer and artist living and working in East Portland. Their personal work centers on ancestral wayfinding, nesting, and communicating. Her current collaborative projects are a queer teen artist residency program at Parkrose High School, a canopy design for Midland Library, and a youth program at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. LP’s work has been supported by Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Mural Arts Institute, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, the City Arts Program – Portland, and the Dorothy Piacentini Endowed Art Scholarship. For more work visit: https://linktr.ee/lillyannepham
Amara H. Pérez, PhD Critical Race Spatial Educator, Researcher, and Strategist. Amara is a long-time social justice educator, community organizer, community-engaged researcher, and critical strategist. For over 25 years her work in and with communities of color in Portland has been informed by popular education, critical theories, and participatory action research. Drawing from critical pedagogy, critical race theory (CRT), and spatial theory, her research examines the role of planning, design, and built environments in maintaining structural oppression. She also studies how critical race spatial praxis can be used as a methodology for spatial justice within educational institutions and local communities. Her professional experience advancing equity strategies within educational settings combined with her community–based experience working for local social change, has enabled her to work with diverse interdisciplinary teams across sectors. In 2017, Amara partnered with Portland Community College to use CRT in facilities planning and design to further the college’s strategic vision for equity and inclusion. Working closely with students as co-researchers has resulted in institutional change at the college including the use of CRT as a central strategy for community engagement in a range of district-wide planning and construction projects. Since then, Amara has partnered with other educational institutions like Seattle Public Schools, Portland State University, and Portland Public Schools to introduce and use a critical race spatial lens in facilities planning and capital projects aimed to support racial equity and social justice. https://amarahperez.com/about
I had the pleasure of TAing for Dr. Kiara Hill during Fall term for the History of Art + Social Practice course. I took this class during my first year as a graduate student but thought it would be beneficial for my practice to “retake” the course through the canon of the Black Arts Movement. Throughout the term, I was able to pick Kiara’s brain and understand the ways in which she approaches her pedagogical frameworks and practice. We often spoke about academia and various paths within the institution. During one of our initial conversations, before the term began, we talked a bit about each other’s journey and how we arrived at where we are today. I’ve toyed with the idea of pursuing a similar path of Kiara’s, acquiring a PhD, but wasn’t entirely too sure about my decision. Kiara offered to share further with me her experience and journey which provided additional insight for a path forward.
Kiara: I’m excited to get into our conversation. Can you describe your practice and talk about your journey getting to where you are today?
Kiara H: Hmm. It’s funny that you say practice because I don’t think of myself as an artist, but I do kind of have a practice in which I approach the work that I do. I would say that my practice is one that is centered in Black feminism that centers and prioritizes the lived experiences of Black fems, Black women and Black girls. From a historical perspective and a more contemporary perspective I would say that 99% of the things that I take on and do are along those lines. I think probably second to that, given my background is very much so Black-centered which is in part informed by my formal training, but also just by experiential knowledge, just lived experiences. I would describe my practice as one rooted in Black feminism, something that’s fluid and seeks to capture the most holistic interpretation of those experiences as possible.
Kiara: Yes, that’s beautiful. Do you feel you’ve always wanted to explore that within your practice or do you feel within your undergrad experience you felt more of a calling to lean more into this research? Or has it always been an interest of yours?
Kiara H.: The short answer is no. I think a lot of 18-year-olds went through a lot of different things before. I mean, not to say 18, but college age, whatever that looks like, went through a lot of different phases and ideas. When I look back on it, the one thing that was consistent is the fact that, even from a young age, I was always exposed to Black history and culture. And in fact it was often my default. I went to a Black Baptist, kind of pan-African style elementary school where, in addition to obviously learning the basics of math, science, that kind of curriculum; it was often interspersed with these, I don’t know, I call ’em pep talks, looking back at it, just the idea that to be a Black child in America means it comes with a certain kind of baggage. But not one that you need to let hinder you as much as one that you just need to be aware of. Even outside of that, when I think about the history and stuff that I learned, it was predominantly African-American history. Black history month was a whole thing. We came in African regalia or what we understood to be that and I had pig feet for the first time at eight years old because of school. It was very foundational to my understanding of myself, but also how I understood African-American history. I think coupled with the fact that my godmother, who has always been very influential in my life, has always been very Afrocentric pro-Black, even down to how she styles her house. She’s always been a collector, at least for my entire life, of 20th century African-American memorabilia. My experience and exposure with various facets of African-American culture came very early on.
So fast forward, although I didn’t know that’s what I was going to do right off the bat, when I look at it, I can see, oh, this has kind of been an ongoing theme in my life. To be honest, I was a pretty shitty undergraduate student. I tell people that all the time actually, and not in a way denigrate myself as much as to say that, you just really never know where life will take you. Not in a cliche way, but in a way where it’s … I think when people see people with PhDs, they think you must have always thought you were gonna be a PhD. And it’s actually like no. I think for a lot of us, we just come at this in very different ways, which I think is the beauty of getting a PhD in humanities. But all that to say, yeah, I didn’t really know. I think what changed for me was in undergrad I had (and this is why representation is important) a Black woman professor who basically told me you’re really smart, but you are a knucklehead, so we need to figure out a way for you to get this on track because you have potential to do some things that I don’t think you even see for yourself right now. I am forever indebted to her for that because she’s right. No one in my family had gotten a graduate degree. No one talked about that. The idea was, oh, you get a state job. There’s nothing wrong with state jobs, but I just didn’t have a lot of exposure to what was available as far as education goes, past getting a bachelor’s degree. When this professor said that to me, she also mentioned, we’re going to get you into the McNair Scholars program, which is a program designed to help marginalized people, folks from underrepresented backgrounds, economically and racially, into graduate programs. Because as we know, when we look at the numbers, people of color in marginalized communities are still very underrepresented. The idea of getting a graduate degree with the hopes of becoming a professor was big but I trusted her. It’s crazy because I remember while interviewing for the program my GPA was barely a 2.8 which was the bare minimum to get accepted. I remember telling them in my interview, listen, if you let me in the program, I can do it. I promise I can do it. I know my transcript doesn’t reflect that but I can do it.
They accepted me into the program. Shortly thereafter, I believe having been exposed to research and to the fact that I could conduct research on what matters in terms of my personal interest and that of my community, I felt okay. Around that same time, the California budget crisis occurred which affected the CSU systems. I originally planned to acquire my bachelors degree in public relations but due to budget cuts I was unable to take the classes I needed to confer my degree. The only way for me to fulfill my requirements was to take up a minor. Looking back, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Then I stumbled upon women’s studies and that totally transformed my life because for the first time I had been given the language to talk about my experiences and the experiences of women around me. I felt I always had an internal knowledge of this language, but being able to participate in discourse around the systemic and historical reasons for those things, I believe, shifted me into a completely different world. At that point I said to myself, okay, I’m going to do school. I can do this. This is interesting to me.
After this realization, I began learning about Black feminism and I was mind blown. It completely shifted my views of myself, politics, and how I saw my Blackness in relation to my womanness. It was really just an eye-opening experience. From there, I was accepted into the University of Alabama’s race and gender studies program. Shortly thereafter, I told myself, okay, if I can get into graduate school, I’m going to take school seriously. I was accepted and that was what it was. While attending the program, I really started to lean heavily into learning about feminism more so specifically the development of Black feminism and learning about different frameworks in relation to feminist frameworks all while participating in different political causes. For a short time, I worked with a reproductive justice organization that escorted women to get abortions. In the midst of pro-lifers harassing them, I found this experience to be most interesting because I was witnessing this first hand. The organization was in Alabama, where not that long before, abortion clinics were being bombed. Unlike my experience in California, when I worked with these types of organizations, it was a completely different social landscape. It was interesting because while helping out one day, Saturday, I’d usually see mostly white people, i.e white men, women and sometimes with their kids but that day I saw a Black man. I was perplexed because I kept asking myself, what is he doing over there? He was Black and gay, and I was just wondering what do you have in common with these people? I remember at one point, my colleagues and I went back and forth with the crowd… saying things. The Black guy was the loudest. It was wild. I thought to myself, what the hell is going on? I got his attention and I talked to him one-on-one. I was trying to figure out what he was doing there, why he was there, where all this came from. When we arrived at the end of our conversation, I don’t actually believe he shared the same political views with these people, he really was seeking some kind of acceptance.
There were moments, like these, that led me to decide to become more proficient in talking about race, gender and class and overall societal issues while also wanting to connect with people. Those are the moments that helped guide me into pursuing and acquiring my PhD and ultimately becoming a professor. The art stuff didn’t come until a little bit later on when I got to Massachusetts. It’s funny… I’m fascinated by the ways people narrate their lives, which is in part, why I do what I do. I’ve never heard myself out loud… out loud, do the same thing. So right now, I’m hoping I don’t sound like a Disney movie.
Kiara: It’s very inspirational and really interesting. I’m engaged, I want to hear more.
Kiara H.: When I was in my PhD program, I had my first real introduction to art. Before that, I had known people, like my mother and godmother, who collected a few prints here and there. I knew Black people created art, but it’s not like I had ever gone on a field trip to a museum and was explicitly told this work was created by a Black artist or this work speaks to me as an individual and person in particular ways. I thought I just didn’t really like art that much. In 2016 or 17, UMCA, which is the contemporary museum on campus, opened up their annual curatorial fellowship. This particular year they decided to open it up to people outside of art history and studio art because they were focusing on African art. This was actually the first time they were going to curate an exhibition focused on African art since the 1970s. There was a lot of pressure about the exhibition because as a predominantly white institution, the question becomes, are they going to do a good job in representation? So I believe that’s why they decided to open it up to more people. I applied and while interviewing they asked me if I was interested in working with them on this and a Kara Walker show that’s coming up next semester. They said we would really love it, especially with my background and ability to develop educational materials. That’s how I made my entrance into the museum, as both a curator and educator. The fact that it was a small institution meant I was heavily involved in the curation process, which was amazing. The show turned out really good and was well received. Although, there was some skepticism about the collector, but that was a whole nother thing. But overall, I believe the intent around the ways in which the work was displayed was well received by the community. So curating this show in addition to the Kara Walker show made me realize that I can have conversations about race, gender, and Black culture outside of the classroom. In fact, people are actually a bit more open to engage because they feel they’re doing so through art, as opposed to when you’re in the classroom.
People can be apprehensive about wanting to offend people, which means that they won’t ask certain questions or won’t say certain things, even if it means that they would get clarity around it. There was something about that museum experience, where I thought to myself, this can’t just be a one-off experience. I need to continue on this path. I hit the ground running … learning as much as I can about African-American art. I looked through catalogs … lots of catalogs. I also remember coming to the realization that I want to talk about the Black arts movement, more specifically Black women artists. I worked for my advisor, who is one of the most profound thinkers of the Black arts movement with his focus being on literature. I had to do a lot of digging on my own with visual art research. With that said, I have an interesting trajectory and now that I’ve arrived at this place, I’ve read and learned so much more about Black art and I’ve fallen in love with it while simultaneously trying to get as much curatorial experience as possible. There was a time where I thought not having an art history degree behind me was going to hinder me. But looking back, that was definitely not the case. In fact, I think because I have a background outside of art history that I’m able to bring the perspective around both curating, writing and teaching.
Kiara: Do you see any overlaps between your fields of study with art history, African-American, and women’s studies?
Kiara H.: They’ve come together to inform one another through my formal background in African-American studies which also means the way in which I approach African-American art is different than how art historians approach it. As someone who sees themselves as a storyteller and as a steward of Black culture, I have an investment in presenting holistic experiences of not only the work but also the artist. I don’t think I knew it at the beginning or in the middle or, honestly, in the PhD program at the beginning, but I’m now seeing everything come together to help me become the scholar, curator, community arts activist person I am today.
Kiara: That’s amazing. I was really excited that you were interested in talking with me for the winter term SoFA interview because I’ve been interested in asking you questions about your journey because as a Black artist myself and who is also making their way through academia, a clear path isn’t always presented which makes it difficult to know which direction to go. There are different options that are presented, but you don’t always have the discernment to know which one to take at that moment. It sounds like experiences and interactions informed a great portion of your journey, for example, the professor you studied under in your undergraduate program really spoke into your future and saw your potential. Also, the experience you mentioned with the Black man at the protest that prompted you to pursue the language and/or history to further engage in these types of conversations. That’s very inspiring because it makes me think that the path doesn’t have to be clear to do what you want to do and it’s okay to look at inspirations from other experiences that you have in life to inform your direction that you want to go in. It’s also okay to not have it figured out already in the present day, it’s a journey and the explanation or the reasoning does eventually come to you over time. That’s the beauty of the journey because you’re not tied to a particular outcome or end. It sounds like you’re very open to the possibilities of the form that your practice can take. It doesn’t have to be written in stone, if that makes sense. It seems more flexible in that way. Do you approach your curating in that way as well? What questions or themes do you explore when curating a show? How would you describe your process?
Kiara H.: Well, I will say one more thing regarding the journey. I’ve always led with H-E-A-R-T work and not hard work. By that, I mean I really care about the work I do. There will be times in life where we have to do things that we don’t really want to do or are not that are stimulating. But one of the things I’ve tried to do is to really create a practice of doing things that challenge me, but also things that matter to me … Things that resonate with me. I’m a BIG legacy person, doing things I could do to help people coming behind me and sometimes that looks like teaching and giving advice, sometimes that looks like creating certain research projects so that the person 10 years from now who wants to research on the same thing doesn’t have to do the leg work that I had to do when there was nothing there. I’ve been dedicated to doing what’s important to me and being unapologetic about it. Like I’ve said, centering Black women, Black fems, Black girls, has really allowed me to give myself to this in all of its fullness. Something that informs this is the fact I was raised predominantly by a village of women. Black women of different shades, backgrounds and experiences.One of the things I’ve realized growing up and I think it became even more clear as I got older is that, even though I see these women as complex, phenomenal, and at times scarred and nuanced and just worthy of attention, that society does hold the same perception of Black woman as I do. That’s something that has also fueled me.
These thoughts fuel the questions I’m exploring within my work. When I say holistic, I mean that I hope when people either experience exhibitions that I’ve curated or read my texts, they’re able to see the full humanity of the individuals I’m referencing. Yes, they were artists, activists, but also friends with families and who had obligations outside of their work. They were people who had good and bad days. When we talk about Black historical figures, there’s a tendency to immortalize them and in god-like ways. I’ve always been fascinated with the everyday, ordinary, because those are the moments that have shaped my life. Those are the moments that I remember most. The subtlety of my moms laugh or the grease that my auntie uses on Sundays… Those are the threads that I try to pull out.
Kiara: I think you’re making a lot of people proud for sure. The way in which you talk about your work and commitment to humanizing Black women, is an act within itself. I believe especially within the art world, it’s not very inclusive. You don’t see a large number of Black curators. I can probably count how many Black curators I know of on my hand and I wish that wasn’t the case. Although, I do believe there is a cultural shift happening within the art world, even though it’s a gradual shift. It’s still a shift happening because there are a lot of resources being allocated to diversify from the inside out. The majority of society’s culture and history starts within museums because it’s a time capsule for history. If we’re able to enter into the institution and change the inner workings from the status quo, then we’ll begin to see a shift that is occurring not only within this space but also within society.
Kiara H.: I agree with that completely and timing also is everything. If I graduated from my PhD program 10 years ago, I don’t know if I would’ve been afforded the same opportunities. But like you said, it seems to be a cultural shift. Especially within institutions, it’s not in good taste if you don’t have at least one Black person on staff to offer a different perspective.
Kiara: That’s very important, especially when you’re talking about working with Black artists. Earlier you mentioned that you were worried that not having an art history degree would hinder you but in fact it benefited you because you were able to provide a fresh perspective. And within that perspective was your lived experiences as a Black woman. I really appreciate that because I can sense the openness of your lived experience within a community or within your own identity as a way to talk about something or be able to do something. The term “epistemology” comes to mind. The communal and/or oral histories within that realm. I feel there is more appreciation of this theology. I believe that’s how it should be because there are so many people within our community that are researchers and practitioners, maybe not in a formal way but they are considered such in their own right.
Kiara H.: That’s why for me, Black feminist epistemology has always been my starting point because it prioritizes lived experience. One of my goals is to try my best to present a multiplicity of subjectivities as opposed to one subjectivity as a stand in for all. Which I think is where my investment in making things complicated and complex really comes from because all of us are complex beings. I think that art is a good vehicle in which I explore those complexities and watch them take form.
Kiara: Life and people are complicated. When you talk about a holistic representation, what comes to mind for me is teasing through the complicatedness of life and putting a light on people’s active living, in general, outside of their accomplishments or image that has been curated by community or societies.
Kiara H.: Absolutely. For me, that is where the investment in representation comes in. I think representation is one of the tools we could use to help meet some of these ends, but it’s not the only one. I think it’s about how you approach that idea of representation. I’m not interested in putting forth a monolithic Black narrative of anything. I’m interested in presenting multiple subjectivities and to “tease out”, how you were saying, those human experiences. I’m also not invested in respectability politics. I think in the 21st century, it is crucial for Black folks to see their identities as all encompassing and not as one thing which in turn will allow us to see and understand each other.
Kiara: I definitely agree that holistic representation within the Black community is something that’s very much necessary because we have not had that. I’d like to believe we are on the cusp of this, or at least that’s how I’m feeling right now. I really enjoyed talking with you and learning more about your journey. It’s very inspiring. I appreciate your time, energy and your experience. I’m sure people are going to enjoy reading more about your experience in SoFA Journal. Thank you Kiara.
Kiara H.: Thank you, Kiara. We’ll get together soon.
Kiara Walls (she/her) is a multi-disciplinary arts educator and social practice artist, originally from LA but now stationed in Portland, Oregon. She received her B.A. in Graphic Design from California State University- Northridge. As a practicing artist, Kiara aims to forge connections between her practice and that of her surrounding communities. This work is manifested through a lens of reparation resulting in site-specific installations, visual storytelling, conflict resolution, and conversations. http://psusocialpractice.org/kiara-walls/
Kiara Hill (she/her) earned her B.A. at Sacramento State University, her M.A. at the University of Alabama, and recently completed her PhD. in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. Her research interests include the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s with an emphasis on Black women visual artists, Black Feminist Art, and Black Contemporary Art. Kiara is also a curator of Black visual art.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
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