The image above is a workspace Nisa set-up during her first summer of archival research in Jerusalem.
Nisa spoke to me from her family home in Colorado to recount her journey from art history major, to professional theater performer, to doctoral graduate and lecturer—a story of mutability that informed her scholarly work. Listen to our conversation here. For her dissertation, Nisa tackled the extremely logistically difficult and politically challenging project of writing about art in Palestine. She demonstrates how a group of arts institutions in the Middle East formed a mutually reinforcing network that helped advance the role of Palestinian art in the twentieth century. Working with galleries, local scholars, arts institutions, religious institutions, and private collectors, Nisa sought to highlight these connections. Her perseverance, tenacity, intelligence and charm; alongside a healthy appreciation of the power of collaboration; enabled Nisa’s notable and considerable scholarly achievement.
Nisa Ari is Lecturer in Art History at the Katherine G. McGovern College of the Arts, University of Houston. She studies late-19th and 20th century visual practices, with a focus on artwork from the Middle East. Her research explores the relationships between cultural politics and the development of art institutions, specifically in Palestine and Turkey. Her current book project, Cultural Mandates, Artistic Missions, and “The Welfare of Palestine,” 1876–1948, explores how radical political transformations, from the last decades of Ottoman rule until the establishment of the State of Israel, changed the nature of artistic production in Palestine. Her research has been published in Third Text, Arab Studies Journal, and Thresholds, and she has recently curated exhibitions at the Qalandiya International Art Biennial (Jerusalem/Ramallah) and the Keller Gallery at MIT. She received her Ph.D. in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture program at MIT.
Montreal native Michael Faciejew joined me to discuss knowing, a core theme in his dissertation, Building “World-wide Society”: The Architecture of Documentation 1895-1939. (He will be defending shortly! Good luck, Michael!) Listen here. His research into the nature of organization, how systems of knowledge came to be classified and codified at the turn of the twentieth century, intersects both media theory and information science. How did archaic protocols applied to works on paper (books and folios, maps and drawings) come to inform the management of digital technologies? In this time period, the crucible for modern functionalism in architecture, articulation of these epistemic systems—the relation of parts to wholes in specific hierarchies of order—solidifies. We probe the relationship between knowledge management and the administrative state, techniques Michael explains were used to try to organize society itself, particularly through western colonial enterprises. De-centering the west in contemporary pedagogies will require a concomitant de-centering of knowledge management, separating “knowledge” from “knowing,” and establishing “lumpy” classification systems.
This is the first episode of Dangerous History to feature a guest from outside MIT.
Michael Faciejew is a PhD Candidate at Princeton University pursuing a joint doctoral degree in the History and Theory of Architecture and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities. Beginning in January 2021, will be a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University where he will be working on an interdisciplinary project on the history of Big Data. His research addresses the intersecting histories of architecture, media, technology, and governance in the modern period. His scholarship has appeared in journals such as Transbordeur and the Journal of Architectural Education, and has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, among other institutions. Prior to beginning his PhD, he worked as an architect in New Haven, New York, and Los Angeles.
My interview with Courtney Lesoon for Dangerous History began with a discussion of her masters thesis on the Damascus Room at the University of Pittsburgh before proceeding to her proposed dissertation and then, to points beyond! Courtney is delightful: funny and vivacious, outspoken and full of conviction. She’s also a loyal and devoted friend. I decided to share her extended thoughts on the use and misuse of history in an extended two-part interview. You can listen to part one here, and part two over here. This is the kind of interview I’ve been hoping to have with my colleagues, one that really probes the definition of history itself, and examines the implications of an under-written or misunderstood past for the culture of a nation like the Unites States. Courtney touches on topics such as “presentism,” writing Islamic history in the west, the seemingly inescapable tropes and traps of modernity, epistemic tautologies, and what it means to be a medievalist.
Courtney Lesoon is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, in the History, Theory & Criticism Section of the Department of Architecture at MIT. Courtney earned her BA in the History of Art with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies from College of the Holy Cross and was a 2012-2013 U.S. Student Fulbright Grantee to the United Arab Emirates where her research concerned contemporary art and emerging cultural institutions in the UAE. Courtney earned her MA in Modern Middle Eastern & North African Studies from the University of Michigan where her thesis concerned an 18th-century Damascus Room and its acquisition as a collected interior in the United States. Before arriving at MIT, Courtney also worked as a Research Assistant in the Art of the Middle East Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Her current dissertation project is titled, “Learning and the City in the Early Islamic World: 632–1067 CE.”
On May 27, Chelsea Spencer joined me from beautiful Brooklyn, New York to discuss the juridical domain of architecture’s creation: contracts. Listen to the interview here. As she writes her prospectus, Chelsea is exploring the evolving role of building contracts as a medium of communication and mediation between builders and architects in the United States, particularly since reconstruction. It is in this era—the mid-to-late 19th century, directly following the American Civil War—that the figure of the “general contractor” first emerges. She describes how these general contractors learned to manage projects through a systems approach, educating one another about methods to maintain profits while delivering work to architects on schedule. The demands of a capital-driven property market, the legally binding nature of contracts, and the complexity of the building process itself have all contributed to the shape of standardized contracts used today.
Chelsea Spencer is a third-year PhD student in the HTC program. She studies architecture, media, and the building industry in Europe and North America from the nineteenth century to the present. Her current research focuses on the business practices of general contractors in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in relation to the doctrine of “freedom of contract” in Ango-American legal and social thought.
Chelsea received an MDes in History and Philosophy of Design from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she cofounded the student publication Open Letters, and a BA in art and architectural history from Emory University. Before beginning her studies at MIT, she was the managing editor of Log magazine. A native Atlantan, Chelsea currently lives in New York. She is also a lapsed modern dancer.
The image at the top of the page is Chelsea’s current workspace, circa 1907, formally a German Men’s Singing Hall
I was delighted to be able to sit down with Albert for an interview for Dangerous History. Since the year before I was accepted into the PhD program at MIT, Albert has been a friend and mentor to me, in part because we share an academic advisor, Arindam Dutta. Albert’s humor and zest for life comes through even in this very professional conversation, which you can listen to here. Albert is writing a dissertation about the evolution of architecture and planning in Mexico in the mid-twentieth century. He focuses on rhetorical shifts that aided socially-minded architects to frame themselves as political actors with important roles to play in the developing republic. Terms like “técnico” and “planificación” took on greater meaning as technical expertise was integrated into Mexico’s central bureaucracy. We discuss the role of key figures in this time period, and the possible use of technical expertise in planning to either ameliorate or exacerbate social inequity.
Albert Jose-Antonio López is a historian of modern architecture, planning, and the built environment. He is a current PhD Candidate in the program for History, Theory, and Criticism at MIT, holds an M.S. in Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practice in Architecture from Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and received a BArch from the University of Southern California. His research on the intersections of architectural professionalization, regional planning, rhetoric, and political society in mid-20th century Mexico has been supported by the Fulbright Garcia-Robles Award as well as by the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California at San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. He was recently a guest lecturer for the Spring quarter at the University of California at Santa Barbara where he taught courses on the urbanization, planning, and political economy of the Americas from the 18th-20th centuries as well as the built environments of Latino/a/x, Hispanic, and Chicano/a/x communities of North American cities. He is a native of the inner city of Los Angeles.
The image above show the Palacio de Lecumberri, the panopticon-style prison that now serves as the Mexican National Archives.
My interview with Walker Downey proved too substantive to limit to just one episode of Dangerous History. You can listen to Part One here, and Part Two over here. Walker examines the intersection of “experimental music” and “sound art,” a transdisciplinary, technological practice that evolved over the decades between WWII and Vietnam. Together we discuss works that fall between the purview of art history and musicology, with a focus on the subversive nature of noise as a category of experience. The institutions and figures around which these compositions or performances accreted are considered alongside the determinative nature of media itself (magnetic tape, for example) in an attempt to determine their relative significance. A project about radio-as-art, on the radio, in two parts.
Walker Downey’s current research is focused on a cross-disciplinary network of American artists, musicians, and dancers that used media such as magnetic recording tape, FM radio, and transistor electronics to carry out experiments with electronic sound in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. At this time, new experimental milieus and stylistic vocabularies took shape within underground music studios, city discotheques, and independent radio stations as diverse practitioners converged around the creative affordances of particular media. He is interested in these hybrid traditions of experimental sound that exceed historical categories such as “sound art” and “electronic music.” As Walker’s research explores, these traditions were distinguished not only by their defiance of disciplinarity and medium-specificity, but by a politically driven engagement with understandings of technological “function” and “dysfunction,” “communication” and “interference” central to the intellectual climate of the Cold War.