Student Spotlight: Anna Speaks at MIT

This is the second time in my memory that we have had a spring snowstorm in Boston on April 1st, and I think it's a testament to my former student Anna's magnetic personality that her entire support team braved the morning cold to come see her present at the MIT Graduate Consortium of Women Studies' 2017 conference, "The Personal is Still Political: Challenging Marginalization Through Theory, Analysis + Praxis." Her paper, "Together Yet Apart: Felix Gonzalez-Torres in 1991 (The Billboard Series)" was included on the panel "Performance as Praxis: Art + Representation as Modes of Resistance." It was an adaptation of the paper she submitted for my Summer 2015 course, Contemporary Art: 1980-Now. She also used the essay as the writing sample for her graduate school application to Boston University - where now she is no longer my student, but my classmate!

Anna's paper addressed the conference theme "the personal is political" through Gonzalez-Torres' series of billboards representing the empty bed he once shared with his partner Ross, who died of an AIDS-related illness. She saw the collapse of public and private spaces in the billboards as a subtle form of activism, arguing that "while some expose privacy in order to oppress, the artist thinks we should expose privacy in order to unite." This idea of community was also of concern for Kyrstin Felts, an MA student in Communication Studies at McGill University. Her paper "Tumblr Feminism: the Role of Personal Blog Posts in Building Feminist Communities Online" provocatively argued against the popular interpretation of online resistance efforts as "slacktivism." Rather, she viewed the casual accessibility of Tumblr as an source of activist empowerment. In "Reclaiming the Whore: Mimesis in Performance Art," Ess Neissl, an MA student of Women's, Gender, + Sexuality Studies at SUNY Albany, extended Kyrstin's discussion of virtual spaces by examining how artists such as Amalia Ulman's parody of Instagram's It-Girls "exists in the very form that it deconstructs."  Turning from visual to musical representation, Jamielynn Varriale, PhD candidate in Latino Studies at the University at Albany, circled back to Anna's theme of Latino masculinity with her talk "Crudo Soy: Los Crudos, Hardcore Punk, and Performative Identity Politics." Her lecture elicited many questions from the audience, including apt comparisons to Riot Grrrl. 

In addition to the session's eponymous themes of art and performance, I detected two other provocative currents coursing through the four talks. First, all of the speakers situated their respective subjects as agents navigating specific spaces: city streets, web forums, and punk dance halls. To quote Ess, "content and context matter." Moreover, I was struck by how all four panelists highlighted forms of activism that were somehow "impure" or "diluted." For Anna, Gonzalez-Torres made his AIDS critique more palatable through beauty, universalism, and metaphor, and for Kyrstin and Ess, the familiarity of social media rendered it a relatively non-intimidating site for resistance. Jamielynn likewise made a point of qualifying that "being in a band is hard work, but its not the same thing" as other activist modes. I am left wondering: in the 1990s to the present (both Anna and Jamielynn's papers begin in 1991) are forms of radical activism no longer tenable? Or are the brands of "soft" activism outlined on this panel precisely what we need to enact change in our image-saturated, late capitalist climate? 

I'll leave those of you who are snowbound this weekend to ponder these issues...