On Icebergs and Ivory Towers and Being a Scholar-in-the-World

The following post was written by Heather Belnap Jensen, a Faculty Fellow at the Center. 

“Academics: forget about public engagement, stay in your ivory towers,” blasted the headline from an opinion piece published in The Guardian last month. While James Mulholland, an associate professor of English at North Carolina State University, is convinced specialization can have great social importance, he maintains that it requires decades of focused research. If you want to make a difference in this world, he says, you will “stay in your offices, write books that few people will read.” So when I set off to Paris in late November to do research for such a book, I congratulated myself on pursuing such a noble path. It would be a sacrifice, but somehow I’d manage to spend my days in those beautiful libraries perusing 200-year-old volumes filled with descriptions and images of bourgeois Parisiennes forging their modern identities. I know, I know . . . as my kids say, the pain is real.

My relationship to the ivory tower is complicated, and I’m guessing this is the case with most of those associated with the venerable institution. I figured out pretty early in my education that the ivory tower had been built by Great Men who had Great Thoughts and put them in Great Books. And from what I had gathered from reading fairytales and novels, when women were in towers, it was generally because they were captives of some wicked witch or nefarious king. But then I came to BYU and noticed that there were a few women professors on the premises and a few women artists on the screen and a few women authors in the syllabi—and one of these authors had gone so far as to claim that all women need a room of their own—and so I became emboldened to imagine having that room be in the ivory tower. I’ve been a bona fide occupant for many years now, and I cannot imagine residing elsewhere. That said, I’ve become even more persuaded of the need to do some significant remodeling of the hallowed space. For starters, it should be less ivory and less tower-like. But this is the stuff for another post.

Yet as I commenced my research trip to Paris, I reveled in the fact that I got to spend two full weeks in ivory-tower mode. Never mind that I arrived on the heels of the horrific attack of November 13 and days before the commencement of the historic COP21; it was time to be about the business of writing that book for other academics because that’s what academics do. And while I tried my utmost to fully retreat into the recesses of Paris-as-it-was, c. 1800, which meant not completely indulging my impulse to consume all the media coverage I could and not being unduly unnerved by the increased security and unannounced closures of metro stops and public buildings, I could not ignore the art on the city’s streets and squares emerging in response to these events. Some of it was rapidly conceived and executed graffiti or street art by individual artists that alternately condemned the hatred and violence of the shootings and celebrated the Gallic grace and resilience with which its citizens had reacted to this great tragedy. Others were far more elaborate installations aimed at bringing greater visibility to the global climate crisis, ones that had been in the works for many months and had been the work of many people.

I want to draw attention to two of the latter kinds of art projects that I happened upon. The first was the projection The Standing March, an artistic solution to abiding by the legal prohibition of live demonstrations in Paris while honoring the tradition of civic protest. As described on the project’s website:

Renowned French artist JR and Oscar-nominated American filmmaker Darren Aronofsky have collaborated on The Standing March, a major public artwork to be exhibited in Paris during the UN’s COP21 climate conference. The video projection will remind leaders that the world is watching as they gather to negotiate a deal aimed at keeping global warming below 2°C. It will be projected on the Assemblée Nationale starting at 8pm on Sunday, November 29th and Monday, November 30th, as over 25,000 officials gather, including Presidents François Hollande of France, Barack Obama of USA, Xi Jingping of China and Narendra Modi of India. It will travel throughout Paris from December 1st until December 7th at locations to be revealed on the artists’ social media accounts.


The video represents more than 500 persons from different backgrounds united around the idea that the conference must end up with meaningful agreements between the countries. The protagonists, who joined the artists after a call for participation, have been filmed separately, rotating themselves on a green background and united to create a representation of humanity. 3D from the British group Massive Attack has composed the original soundtrack.

I saw notice of the initial projection on Instagram about twenty minutes after it was posted (all that following of my favorite artists on social media is paying off) and immediately laced up my running shoes so I could get to the Assemblée Nationale as quickly as possible. Once there, I was able to view and photograph the projection, to record reactions from the gathering spectators, and to watch the artist (!) and his team and their behind-the-scenes work. On subsequent evenings, The Standing March was shown on the Panthéon, the Musée Picasso, and the Hôtel de Ville, and I went to see several iterations of this progressive projection in the course of the week. As a historian of the French Revolution, I was mindful of the discourses invoked when I was representing crowds of ordinary people at these particular public spaces, and I couldn’t help but think that Jacques-Louis David, who orchestrated many of the revolutionary spectacles, would applaud JR’s efforts.

JR Standing March November 29 2015 Assemblée Nationale

The Standing March, November 29, 2015, Assemblée Nationale

JR Standing March December 3 2015 Panthéon

The Standing March, December 3, 2015, Panthéon

I stumbled upon the second work one afternoon while scurrying between Parisian ivory tower outposts. Initially I thought that the massive blocks of ice in the area in front of the Panthéon were there as part of an ice sculpture carving event, but once I got closer, I could see that these were no ordinary blocks of ice and that their disposition in the square was carefully chosen. This was Ice Watch (Paris), a collaborative project spearheaded by artist-activist Olafur Eliasson and geologist Minik Rosing. For this, twelve enormous ice blocks (each weighing about 10 tons) that had been “harvested” as free-floating icebergs outside of Nuuk, Greenland, were placed in a clock formation in the square in front of the Panthéon. From December 3 through the 12, the shards of glacial ice melted away, providing powerful visual representation of the realities of the global climate crisis to the delegates of COP21. Incidentally, the website devoted to promoting Ice Watch (Paris) and the digital and social media that accompanied it is perhaps as important and as exemplary as the installation itself. Check it out.

The installation, which drew in individuals and organizations from myriad walks of lives—artists, scientists, business people, philanthropic organizations—could not have been sited more appropriately. By placing Ice Watch in the square in front of the Panthéon, the burial place for some of France’s most influential figures in diverse fields and disciplines, Eliasson and Rosing were effectively depositing the global climate crisis at the feet of these great men and women and asking them for inspiration or intervention. I happened to be staying just around the corner, so I was able to visit the installation several times; it was especially visually arresting at night. Being able to actually place my hands on these blocks and feel the varying sensations of cold and wet and increasingly smooth was such a delight (pro tip: don’t touch any artworks unless given express permission) and to witness the alarming rate at which the pieces of glacial ice were shrinking. And as I observed this shrinking, glacial ice, art as varied as the prehistoric Stonehenge, Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic painting Sea of Ice, and Salvador Dali’s surrealist Persistence of Memory were conjured up in their intersecting forms and subjects, thereby enhancing my experience.

Eliasson Ice Watch Paris December 3 2015 night shot

Ice Watch, December 3, 2015, Panthéon

I have no intention of making my encounters with these installations the subject of a scholarly article or book. Instead, I’ll be content to share a bit of the experience with friends on Facebook and in in-person conversations, to incorporate it into my contemporary art course and the session I do with the high school students in BYU French Camp, and to blog about it here. And while I recognize that such activities 1) don’t have much capital in the current system of academia and thus will do little to advance one’s place in it and 2) will not Change the World, if a few meaningful conversations about art and life, self and world are sparked and this leads to a few people refining their beliefs and realigning their actions, it is enough, isn’t it? Or, as the wise and visionary Virginia Woolf put it, “of such moments . . . the thing is made that endures.”

JR and Aronofsky, Eliasson and Rosing, and other artist-activists share a core belief in the power of art, brought into the spaces of everyday life, to bring about change in the world. Encountering this art of the now in the streets of Paris in the midst of my focused research on the art of the past was a potent reminder that while remaining inside the ivory tower holds certain promises and pleasures for academics, these are also to be found elsewhere. Rest assured, I’ve made the ivory tower my permanent residence and have every intention of writing books that few people will read. At the same time, I believe, as so many of my colleagues do, it my duty and my honor to share widely my knowledge of the humanities and conviction of their transformative powers even while these convictions are in the process of accumulation and maturation. I embrace BYU’s motto that “the world is our campus.” In addition, I find that my expertise in my areas of specialization increases not only through scholarly discourse, but also through conversations with real people about real issues in the real world. And I also know that in the course of going to and fro between the sanctified spaces of the academy and the popular places without, I am refined. So here’s to the good life of ivory towers and icebergs and being a scholar-in-the-world.

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