All posts filed under “Cultural Theory

Nelisiwe Xaba

Nelisiwe Xaba
Nelisiwe Xaba performing “Plasticization” at SUD 2013, part of doual’art in Douala, Cameroon.
Visiting an exhibition of documentary photographs of the 1976 Soweto uprisings and the 1960 Sharpeville massacre

We are lucky if in the course of our everyday lives we come across images as inspiring as those of the work of Nelisiwe Xaba. While looking for journals about nomads in the periodicals room of the reference library, I came across Art South Africa magazine, which featured an article about Xaba, a dancer and performance artist in Soweto. I recently traveled to South Africa for the first time. Never in my life have I been more aware of my race than while walking the streets of Johannesburg, even more so than when, in Taiwan, I was the only white person in sight. (The most unnerving thing about Taiwan, and the rest of Asia, is not being able to read the signs.) South Africa is unique. It may surprise you to learn that it’s the most racially diverse nation on earth, with thriving Indian and Malay populations mixed among native Africans and whites. In that way it is not unlike Brazil. Yet while vacationing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2002, I was the least aware of my race as I’ve ever been, so profoundly comfortable did everyone seem together on the beach. (My Brazilian friend Flavia, who was also my guide, told me that in other parts of the city, however, it’s not the same.) In such moments—on the beach in Brail, on the street in Johannesburg or even Cape Town—the unspoken rules governing space and the separation between groups within one’s own culture (for me, the United States) are revealed for the obtuse, falsely constructed monsters that they are. I came home from South Africa sad at our lack of progress regarding integration and equality since Reconstruction. South Africa, of course, is on a whole other level. Xaba has something to say about it.

Q: You are very interested in the politics of the body.

XABA: Yes, of the female black body. The Black Consciousness movement existed because there was racism. So if I didn’t perform a lot in Europe, and only in Soweto, it wouldn’t be a question… If your work mainly gets seen in Europe it is important to acknowledge that consciously. Who is consuming what you are doing?

Art South Africa, December 2009, v8.2

The Black Consciousness movement began in the 1970’s, based on the writings of Steve Biko. (Denzel Washington played Biko in the movie Cry Freedom.) I bought a small compilation of Biko’s essays in Cape Town called, No Fear Expressed. (ISBN No: 0-9802591-2-6) The title is a phrase he used in an interview which encapsulates much of his message. The complete sentence is, “To understand me correctly you have to say that there were no fears expressed.” As someone for whom fear has often been an obstacle, Biko’s words spoke to me: “We must remove from our vocabulary completely the concept of fear.”[1] “Is it this fear that erodes the soul of black people in South Africa…How can people be prepared to put up a resistance against their overall oppression if in their individual situations, they cannot insist on the observance of their manhood?”[2] Biko was tortured and killed by the government for violating his house arrest. I have since thought of this great intellectual as one of my personal heros.

Biko and Xaba both politicize the body as a landscape of struggle. They remind us that it is important always to be aware of the nature of one’s own identity as consumed by others. The final image in the triptych above is a photograph taken in Regina Mundi church in Soweto. In the summer of 1976, police fired on unarmed, retreating students during protests in the townships. The bullet holes in the church’s ceiling remain as irrefutable evidence that the bullets themselves were not made of rubber, as the police later testified, but were decidedly lethal. The church balcony now displays a collection of photographs marking the events of that summer. You can see my reflection in the glass of this particular photo depicting one of the many horrors which occurred as the apartheid system fell apart. We cannot escape ourselves, and so must instead recognize our own identity as perceived by others. Xaba’s work reminds us to consider this key part of the creative process.

[1] Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity,” 1973.
[2] I Write What I Like, Frank Talk. “Fear — An Important Determinant in South African Politics.” 1971.

Stairs in dreams

My dreams are extremely vivid, visual, and tumultuous. I often write them down. They describe intricate narratives—many fearful—which have me running down twisted corridors or along bizarre city streets. These dreams are certainly architectural, even hyper-spatial. Sometimes I see the earth below in a distorted fish-eye perspective, blocks laid out as though pressed against a sphere, like in Zaha Hadid’s early paintings.

Stairs feature prominently in these dreamscapes. Last night’s dream found me at a gem store where everything was free for the taking. Or that’s what I thought. Grasping my stolen treasures, I ran down the stairs to escape but they kept going on and on, father and farther down, with no way out.

As a child, every night when I got into bed I turned to lay on my side. My father thought I’d fall asleep faster if I adopted the right sleeping posture. When I put my ear to the pillow, I could hear a faint throbbing, like the beat of a distant drum. As I drifted off, I would imagine that the drum was really the sound of someone in the stairway. The old wooden steps still creak with every foot fall. I would listen to the beat as the steps disappeared into the distance and drift off to sleep.

I suppose now that the throbbing noise was the sound of my own heartbeat, which I can’t hear as distinctly any more. The steps, however, remain. They are quite plain, the steps themselves. I went back to photograph them just recently. Yet however common, I know that for me they are iconic. The image of these particular steps and their balustrade will never leave me.




Good Times




The incoming architecture graduate students at the University of Hartford were treated to a day in New York City on August 26th. I led this third annual tour of the city’s cultural institutions, joined by 17 students and 3 other faculty from the department. This tour was similar to the previous two, though I attempt to make variations with each iteration. Our itinerary included the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Center for Architecture. We ended the day at Saigon Grill on University Place, having worked up a healthy appetite.

The images above are of the installation by the Starn brothers on the Met rooftop titled “Big Bambú.” I tried to see it earlier in the summer but was turned away due to rain, so I was really excited to finally visit the growing structure-as-art looming 50 feet above the roof. You can walk along the pathway built into the structure with special, get-up-at-7am-to-wait-in-line tickets, so long as you meet certain criteria (over 4’10”, under 400 lbs) including not being drunk. The only irony there is that alcohol is readily bought and sold on the Met rooftop. Big Bambú is really fantastic, and working on it has to be the best summer job ever. It’s not built the way an architect or engineer would build it—it’s not efficient. Rather, it’s highly fetishized, with extra bits of string hanging down from all the lashings, footings rendered useless by continued construction that leaves them dangling a half-inch above the ground, reams of cloth tied up to provide shade to the mountain-climbers-turned-builders, and wrapped objects likes stones embedded into the bamboo network. It is awesome. And it’s only up until October 31st, so go see it.




The first year grads will be working on an addition to the Whitney Museum, the one Renzo Piano tried to do directly adjacent to Breuer’s building, but the neighborhood said “no” too many times. Read More

He who thinks great thoughts

Now that classes have ended it’s time to return to my research with renewed force. To prepare my brain for the delightful onslaught of knowledge, I watched some documentaries about modern philosophy and modern philosophers. Renewing creative force via distracted absorption is advice directly taken from my Inspiration and Authorship lecture. These films remind me why I care about the intellectual’s life, and why I choose to function this way in the world.

He who thinks great thoughts often makes great errors.

The quote above is Martin Heidegger, and begins a 1999 BBC documentary, Heidegger: Thinking the Unthinkable, which is part of the series Human All Too Human, itself the title of one of Nietzsche’s texts. The film is slow-paced but insightful, the quote above presented as a partial apology for the fact that this great thinker was a Nazi. I try to block that out when enjoying his work, but it’s ever-present. The film can be seen on Google video.

Astra Taylor’s documentary Examined Life (ZeitgeistFilms, 2009) is a set of short conversations with renowned contemporary philosophers who explain either the kernel of their work or reflect on some critical question of our age. My favorite thing about this film is that Taylor decided to interview each philosopher while he or she walks or moves through space. In the New York Times’ article about Examined Life (“Thinkers in Transit, Philosophy in Motion,” Feb 20, 2009), Taylor mentions this idea came to her after reading Wanderlust, a ‘discursive’ look at the history of walking, by Rebecca Solnit. I’ll have to check that out. The notion that motion changes an individual, liberates them, is an intriguing one. As a source of inspiration, Examined Life delivers. I had to pause it several times to jot down incoming thoughts. Here’s the trailer.

Architecture pop songs

During the fall semester my graduate students engaged in an internal competition to design and build an outdoor pavilion using only recycled cardboard. One student, who owns a programmable remote camera, snapped pictures of the build at 30 second intervals. He then made a video by stringing the images together and setting them to music. I was hoping for “We Built this City [on rock and roll]” by Jefferson Starship (released by Grunt in 1985), but the students chose a different soundtrack.

I started to wonder, how many popular songs exist which feature architecture as a core lyrical element? I thought of “Our House” (Madness, The Rise and Fall, Stiff Records, 1982), and “Burning Down the House”  (Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues, Warner Brothers, 1983), but was at a loss for notable others. “Welcome to the Jungle,” Guns n’ Roses’ song about Hollywood, doesn’t count, because it’s more sociological then architectural (Appetite for Destruction, Geffen Records, 1987).

I’d like to gather a playlist of architecture pop songs. Please post your ideas.

The uncanny of Wes Anderson

Last night I watched Fantastic Mr Fox, directed by Wes Anderson (Twentieth Century Fox, released 2009). It’s based on a story by Roald Dahl, heavily altered by Anderson. Fantastic is a puppet movie, which is fun in itself, and it’s voiced by some great Anderson regulars (Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman), with a sprinkle of A-list actors, namely George Clooney and Meryl Streep who voice Mr and Mrs Fox. Most of the film’s characters, in fact, are woodland creatures, like Fox, Badger, and Weasel, who wear clothes and walk on their hind legs.

Anderson’s films are always quirky, and often dark, not unlike movies by the Cohen Brothers. After watching, I began to reflect on the uncanny moments in Fantastic. Take for instance the character of the Lone Wolf, who appears only briefly, and who doesn’t speak English like the other animals. Read More