For a class called Culture Jamming, we were put into groups to create content for a platform called a “tilty table,” which, as you’d expect, is a table that tilts. Our groups had to tell untold stories that were based in places around DFW, and our group was assigned our own UTD campus. I’ve included the bits of research I did and the final reflection of the project.
- WHAT IF
- President Kennedy hadn’t been shot in Dallas in 1963
- As per the official chronology of the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest (GRCSW), Lloyd Berkner and Erik Jonsson had laid the groundwork for what would become UTD in the late 50s. Jonsson’s desire to keep local scientific talent from flocking to California met Berkner’s vast military and defense technological knowledge. (source: official GRCSW chronology by Al Mitchell, pg. iii)
- “Oil is finite. We have to start mining man’s minds.” Jonsson had been an oil tycoon before starting SCAS/GRCSW, and this was his quote from a Dallas Morning News article in 1961. He and other founders went on to talk about how the institute would be able to function in tandem with the “industry” and would train “creativity” as a graduate program. (source)
- SCAS/GRCSW had been a co-sponsor of the President’s visit to Dallas where he was assassinated. The speech he was traveling to give at the Dallas Trade Mart centered on the institute’s possible position as a center of high-level research, on par with “MIT and Cal Tech.” President Kennedy went on to describe the importance of national security during the 60s, and implied that SCAS would have had a huge role in developing that research. (source)
- Dr. Anton Hales, one of the first scholars at SCAS/GRCSW, reflected on the assassination and said that it hadn’t caused a hindrance to the recruitment efforts of the center. His wife, Denise, was present at the Dallas Trade Mart where Kennedy was supposed to speak before being assassinated; she said that Erik Jonsson had been the one to break the news to the room of guests numbering in the thousands. (source: “Oral History Interview with Dr. Anton Hales…” by Dr. Larry Sall, pg. 79)
- An event immediately following the assassination hosted by SCAS/GRCSW suffered from mass backouts after the safety of officials coming to visit Dallas was now in question. University founders personally sent telegrams to the scientists whose attendance was in doubt, and aside from a singular “Commies go home!” banner appearing in the lobby of the hotel directed at a Russian scientist who was a visiting scholar in the US, nothing happened. And aside from that event, the center’s image was relatively unscathed; their research into discovering quasars had come out right after the assassination and shielded the founders from any possible outcry. Many of the founders never commented directly on the assassination after it happened, but it left a deep impact on them as people. (source: official GRCSW chronology by Al Mitchell, pg. 30-32)
- President Kennedy hadn’t been shot in Dallas in 1963
- Using this as a base, we can assume that Kennedy’s visible approval of the school, along with the military connections of the founders such as Dr. Berkner, would have led to a considerably larger amount of federal funding. Combined with the money from the then-burgeoning Texas Instruments stock that the founders had invested personally, the GRCSW could’ve become a huge hub for military tech research. Rather than focusing on quasars and space research, the center might have ended up focusing on weapons and defense developments.
- The founders, eager to keep up the productivity of the center and to keep recruiting talent that would further the center’s newfound mission of national security (especially in the Cold War), might end up focusing on more militaristic applications of science, and the center might have been taken on partially by the federal government in a way less like a state-run university and more like an extension of the military. Had this happened, we never would’ve had the UTD that we do now.
Any reflection on a large-scale project like this is going to have a few different steps to take; evaluating the group, and our own small-scale goals and work processes. Taking a look at the project itself, and figuring out how that related to the course material from earlier, and finally, determining what I was able to do and how I was able to grow. But this should probably start with the most pressing thought on my mind, which is that we all did something that had the potential to be wonderfully subversive. Without going too much into the theory (yet, of course), the use of a map as a means to plot the histories of the oppressed and forgotten is such an exciting act, because maps have such a benign position in society, yet are some of the most often-used and necessary tools for understanding place. Dave’s question from the presentation day in the lab is still echoing around my head, because of the fact that we’re opening all of our own lines of thought around the question of maps and how they’re useful in a more thoughtful way, which is a huge mark of success for the project, in at least one regard.
To start a more careful analysis of my group’s project, I think that we did a fine job of taking the ideas and questions we had about UTD and running with them, somewhat. However, and I think this was a universal experience across the groups, we felt encumbered by the platform of the tilty-table. And like I said in class, I think that working with the limits and considerations for that medium was actually a pretty beneficial experience, it had its downsides, and not having a clear grasp as to what were were doing or striving for was a major one. For our group, I think we ended up doing a lot more legwork in terms of creating content than we did for researching truly suppressed or ignored veins of history. That being said, I think we hit a really intriguing balance of creating content that was engaging that allowed us to share some pretty interesting findings from our research. And specifically, our group seemed to be the most daring in our applications of the tilty-table, which was exciting, and the brainstorming that went into our final products was fruitful and interesting. The pinball and chess board were fun ideas that seemed to be more interesting than just presenting the information blankly, and with more time, it would’ve been exciting to, not only make those ideas work on the tilt-table, but to create new ones. Flexing our creative muscle definitely added an element of culture jamming that we’d read about into the process of a project that a good deal of people in class seemed to not connect (at least based on the murmurings I overheard). Overall, I think that my group with Anthony, Jenny, Sam, and Alina, did a bang-up job, and I’m honored to have gotten the chance to work on a project that I now know Dean Balsamo was taking a close look at for her own future work.
Moving back to the more foundational course concepts, I think that I’ll start with the same line of thinking that I shared in the presentation and explore the connection with de Certeau’s writing in more depth. The central focus of his work around how those in power and those outside of it both go about organizing and exacting the change they respectively want to see in the world comes back to maps, in a way. Not just in the sense that hose in power have the advantages of spatiality, but in the sense that maps function as a part of a cultural history. To figure out where a building that has been demolished used to stand, we turn to old maps, and they become part of the record-keeping process, and if a mapmaker had a certain agenda that they wanted to protect, or that they wanted to exclude something or someone from history, they had a considerable amount of power by writing them off the map. Similarly, the loss of maps also represents a loss of the understanding of place that people had at a point in history, giving more power to the ones making maps today without understanding of the dynamics that formed the historical maps.
De Certeau’s writings about the differences between strategies and tactics don’t have to be applied only to the form of the map, of course. That power struggle extends further, to the difference between the inherent power of place and presence, as opposed to the temporality of resistance. Having indulged the wannabe philosopher in me with that line, I’ll break it down; de Certeau’s ideas relate to the design concept of object permanence, where the thought of something exists after the object itself is gone. He posited (right, I think) that power has a great deal of object permanence because it’s so tightly related to place itself. Buildings protect the powerful and serve as huge monuments that show what labor and capital can create in order to literally rise above the powerless. And the impact that these huge artifices have on culture is hard to understate. From the small-scale changes in the construction of houses — larger over the course of time to mirror the greater desire for power in certain classes and the inability of others to share in that power — to buildings towering over one another in a rush to touch the sky, the physical and cultural landscapes are equally changed forever.
Even in loss, buildings have a certain power that has lasting impact, which, I think, was one of the goals of this project; figuring out what has been struck from the record and tracking the traces of power that still emanate from buildings lost. With respect to that, I think the Ambassador Hotel group tried to do that and got closest, since their subject was in a state of disrepair, but there’s something to be said for Collin Creek Mall’s fall from grace to be totally destroyed rather than restored. Even in that disparity, there’s a glimpse at the power structures that determine which buildings will still stand and which will fall. Collin Creek’s fate is sealed by it’s connection to a time in history that is seen as “excessive” and “cliché,” (the 80s, of course), whereas the Ambassador Hotel has connotations that are seen in a much more positive way, despite being, arguably, worse than the hypercapitalism of malls. The mafia, and the 20s in general, seem to have a much more palatable taste to the people who hold power in commercial spaces, which are the landowners and consumers. In buildings outside of the scope of our four projects, this is still a phenomenon that, very often, has more connections to power struggles. An example of that would be the fights to keep buildings standing in areas with high minority populations in the face of development. An ongoing struggle in my hometown of El Paso, TX centers around this, where the disenfranchised are fighting to hold onto their homes, the one physical manifestation of the power and agency that they hold in the community, against developers and politicians who want to construct a new multi-purpose arena in the middle of downtown, destroying a whole historical neighborhood in the process.
By introducing a power struggle, there are clearer connections to the other branches of culture jamming that we studied. Personally, Mark Levine’s ideas tie back into the pursuit of identifying and addressing struggles of power in creative ways. Levine’s case study with the Arab Spring showed the importance of the intersections of time and place, and in a way, makes our efforts to map subjective and untold histories in 2019 more meaningful, as we live in a moment in history that’s defined by forces that don’t always support looking back as much as they do looking forward. The practice of jamming through collaboration, furthermore, has a lot of weight to it, and with respect to our project, creating and tracking histories through collaboration and production very much so ties into Levine’s line of thinking, especially using a typically power-heavy medium like a map. It reminds me of another project I came across, one that was more artistic, but still similar to ours, called Queering the Map, in which participants were able to add pins to a Google map, alongside personal anecdotes about their own histories, with relation to being queer and possibly persecuted. That project is something like what I would want to do with more resources, to answer Sean’s question from the presentation, as that project did more to connect disparate threads to create a new narrative, free from the constraints of place, that crossed time and invited participation from all those who felt like there was benefit to participation. That being said, it also gets to Levine’s ideas of subversion through collaboration, because one can begin to track threads and determine places that might hold particular significance to queer people, and we can understand and protect them better than we already do, or start to do so, at all.
More than anything else, what this project did was galvanize me to really take close examinations at the untold histories around me. While UTD was the proving ground this time, the ideas and questions that were sparked by this project all centered around preservation and education; what are the stories that we’ve lost to oppressive authors? Who was involved in creating the world we enjoy today, and where are their traces? How can we better preserve histories without place? Those are the kinds of questions that I want to go forward and determine how I can answer for the stories that are closest to my heart, and that I feel could make the most difference in the world, and they started with this project. Hopefully, I can deliver and become more of the change that the world needs, in order to make sure that all the world’s stories, from the grand to the minuscule, are all treated with the same level of respect, so that we all may benefit from the lessons of the shared human experience that, for better or for worse, we’re all engaged in, and will be forever.