This post was written by Brian Russell Roberts, Humanities Center Fellow.
June 12, 2017
Since the BYU Humanities Center was founded in 2012, one of its greatest contributions to intellectual life in the Humanities College has been its support for several faculty research groups, ranging from Adaptation Studies to Jazz-Blues for the Humanities, from Derrida and the Question of Religion to Environmental Humanities, and from Translation Studies to Applied Humanities. According to its website, the Center is currently supporting eleven such groups, each independently run and organized by a core of faculty, usually with a time horizon of about three years. By design, groups form around urgent questions that are conceptually specific even as they cut across disciplinary lines, drawing interest and participants from multiple departments in the College. As a research group runs its course, the Center provides institutional structures and financial support for intense engagement with the group’s set of questions, with activities that might include research workshops, invited speakers, reading schedules, community engagement, graduate student involvement, faculty travel, and multi-institutional symposiums. By the end of the three years, ideally, group members will have undertaken or launched projects (a scholarly book, a series of articles, an edited collection) related to the group’s original set of questions. And from there, even in the absence of continued Humanities Center financial support after the third year, the collaborative cross-disciplinary conversations should have enough momentum to continue and shift—with former group members now going on to form new groups addressing related or altogether new questions.
The Archipelagoes/Oceans/Americas (AOA) research group has recently completed its second year of funding. As outlined in our group’s original funding proposal, we have been interested in pursuing “non-continental lines” of inquiry by turning “toward oceans and archipelagoes for the geographical structures of [our]…analyses.” Departing from the continental exceptionalism that undergirds most scholarly and popular accounts of the United States and the Americas more generally, we have “asked how the Americas have not only been affiliated with the islands and archipelagoes of the Caribbean and the Pacific, but how the Americas have been unexpectedly constituted by archipelagic space in these oceans.”
Here at the end of AOA’s second year, I’m less interested in giving an inventory of what we’ve done and more interested in tracing the spinoffs of a certain stream of collaboration we’ve undertaken between scholarship in the humanities and creative production in the fine arts.
In 2014 when I was organizing the AOA in preparation to apply for funding, I drew on faculty interest within the Humanities College (from the English Department, Asian & Near Eastern Languages, and Comparative Arts & Letters). But I also hoped we could reach outside the College and bring Fidalis Buehler, of BYU’s Art Department, into the AOA. Fidalis had joined the Art Department in 2008, the same year I joined the English Department, and I remembered that when we met at the New Faculty Seminar he had mentioned that his Kiribati and US-American heritage and Pacific/Western upbringing played a role in way he approached his work as a visual artist. Because at that point I was beginning to read around in oceanic and archipelagic thought, I made a note of this. Six years later, when I approached Fidalis about joining up with the AOA, we grappled with the question of what his role would be. Quite understandably, he was wary of becoming an “illustrator” for a bunch of humanities scholars’ theories about oceans and islands. But we agreed that this would never be the objective. Instead, we would approach his artwork not as illustrative of our own archipelagic and oceanic thinking but as an individual and visual contribution to the AOA’s joint project of theorizing oceanic and archipelagic spaces across disciplines.
From the beginning, Fidalis’s participation has taken the AOA into institutional and theorizing currents we would not have otherwise entered. His presence on the proposed faculty line-up prompted us to reach out to Michelle Stephens (who was at the time organizing a yearlong Archipelagoes Seminar for the Rutgers Center for Cultural Analysis) about the idea of putting together a Pacific-Caribbean art exhibition showcasing Fidalis’s archipelagic/oceanic work alongside complementary work by a Caribbean artist. Extending an invitation to the Afro-Cuban artist Juana Valdes (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), Michelle brought this joint art exhibition to fruition as part of the Rutgers Archipelagoes Seminar. Titled “From Island to Ocean: Caribbean and Pacific Dialogues,” it ran from September to December 2015, and in October 2015, Fidalis, Mary Eyring, and I traveled from Utah to New Jersey to join in an event celebrating and commenting on the theoretical work—in terms of media, compositional process, visual arrangement, and other factors—that Fidalis and Juana had undertaken in the art they had prepared or chosen for the exhibition.
I was particularly struck by a cyanotype that Juana displayed, which I at first saw as a remaking of the typical map’s view from above, replacing an archipelago of islands with a set of teacups that were floating upside-down. Rather than seeing a bird’s-eye view of islands, I was seeing a bird’s-eye view of teacups floating in the ocean. But listening to her speak about the cyanotype, I realized she was working to situate and theorize viewers not as looking down on the ocean but rather as looking up from within, with a fish-eye view, at teacups floating right-side-up. The floating teacups, then, became a set of islands unmoored from the underwater terrain. What would it mean, more broadly, to imagine a fish-eyed perception of geographical forms and features? And what were the implications of—and rationales for—representing islands as unmoored, I wondered.
I was also struck by the eclectic conceptual work Fidalis described as he explained the several sources of inspiration behind the series of island/ocean scenes he had painted: the gaudy designs and names of fishing lures, perceptions of islands seen not from above but viewed from a vessel navigating the peaks and troughs of ocean waves, and World War I-era camouflage designed to confuse viewers regarding the direction a ship is traveling. As humanities scholars collaborated with visual artists in the context of the interinstitutional collaboration between related research groups at BYU and Rutgers, Juana’s and Fidalis’s work in visual theorizing was pushing all of us toward new ways of thinking about archipelagic and oceanic frameworks.
The following year, in October 2016, we continued pursuing this type of collaboration and genuine interanimation between visual and more traditionally scholarly theorizing during the Archipelagoes/Oceans/Americas Symposium held at BYU. The two-day symposium brought together twenty scholars and artists from eleven institutions, with the Rutgers Archipelagoes group attending and with Fidalis organizing an art exhibition whose contributors offered visual theorizations that invited us to rethink oceans and archipelagoes in terms of mountains (Charlie Cohan, University of Hawai‘i), floating highways (Cody Arnall, Texas Tech), and digital networks (Tiana Birrell, Art Institute of Chicago).
As Michelle and I were helping to facilitate these collaborations between artists and scholars and between BYU and Rutgers, we were also at work writing and revising the introduction for our edited collection Archipelagic American Studies (Duke University Press, 2017). Deeply invested in looking toward the visual to gain new insight into what we describe as “the archipelagic Americas,” the introduction (full text available here) draws on some of Fidalis’s work, a digital print titled Bali Hai Series-II (2012), which we discuss as representing islands archipelagically connected by “a set of filamentous networks, simultaneously evocative of airline routes, communications cables, kinship ties, Internet connections, social networks, and waka/canoe voyages undertaken with the aid of maps perhaps similar to Marshall Island stick charts.”
As Duke designer Amy Buchanan prepared the front cover for Archipelagic American Studies, she presented us with two options, both based on work by Fidalis. The first showcased Bali Hai Series-II, which of course is included (albeit in grayscale) in our introduction to the book. The second was based on White Cloud Caution Flasher, a painting we had not discussed in the book but that we had been thinking about since Fidalis first exhibited it at Rutgers in 2015. We loved both versions. If we were to choose Bali Hai Series-II, readers would have the advantage of seeing the work in color rather than only in grayscale. But if we were to choose White Cloud Caution Flasher, we would have a cover that navigated beyond the concepts we had already discussed in Archipelagic American Studies. We saw White Cloud Caution Flasher as an assemblage whose eclectic components and always-unraveling cohesions would, even after publication, push, stretch, and fray the volume’s conceptual concerns in ways we ourselves could not anticipate. This choice was in keeping with the AOA’s commitment, from the outset, to engage in projects of co-theorizing between humanities scholarship and the visual arts.
Looking toward the AOA’s third and final year, our commitment to cross-disciplinary co-theorizing promises to continue and increase in complexity and breadth, as we are now in the process of working out an agreement to put together a special journal issue (showcasing humanities scholarship in dialogue with a digital art exhibition) tentatively titled “Archipelagoes, Oceans, and American Visualities.” Given the timelines and reach of such projects, we anticipate that the AOA’s momentum and spinoffs will continue far beyond its three-year funding cycle.