not mine, part two

a jogger runs by a defaced image of barack obama

part of the series fallow time: dispatches from a field suspended

i’ve been making haiku out of other people’s utterances. find the first part here.

this time, one from me:

grief that overwhelms
creative capacity
cracks open seedlings


and eight more from my friends:

pressure seems to bind us
gobbling up chunks of land here
crumble it to dust

mission to disrupt
places where disparate things
been invisible

it’s natural stuff
harm of my ancestral line
for 1000 years

they finally bloom
and do shitloads of damage
by outside people

it’s a destroyer
wait for something else to grow
not who lives here now

our increased presence
suspicious of white people
where we put this place

edge of the city
kernal of an idea
freaking racist sign

change your narrative
this system of apartheid
it’s unbuildable

(home)body of work

pink and white flowers on a tree

part of the series fallow time: dispatches from a field suspended

i am making because writing is not enough.

elizabeth chin

for the past six weeks or so, since my fieldwork has been on hold, i’ve been taking a photography class online through flower city arts center.* it has really helped me think more deeply about why i make photos, and why photoethnography makes sense to me as a method for living and learning on fertile ground, particularly during fallow time.

a partial list of potential photographic motivations, noninnocent:**

to capture, or to liberate
to humanize, or objectify
to find the light in a dark time
to prove we were there
to interrogate notions of “proof”
to feel something
to add a “pop of color”
to break up some imagined monotony
to be with others, to be alone
to get outside
to expand our space
to chart a path
to start a conversation
to render the ugly beautiful, and the beautiful ugly***
to render the strange familiar, and the familiar strange
to reconnect
to get closer
to keep our distance
to save something for later
to move this out of short term memory
to capitalize on the power dynamics inherent in any looking relation
to fill a cup
to shed some light, or some baggage
to share
to circulate
to archive
to blend in
to stand out
to set the scene
to see something else, or differently
to try out a new lens
to fill a gap
to rest our eyes
to be ok

lately, i’ve been making photos to cope, to care, to soothe. below are some–but not all–of my favorites from the past several weeks.

a reflection of a tree in a puddle
a neon sign in a laundromat window reads "cleanest in town"
a black trash can with the rochester logo on a city sidwalk
residential garbage and recycling bins sit on a curb like old friends
a pothos plant hangs in a ceramic pot on a wall
pink and white blossoms on a tree fill the frame
a faded and rusty yellow fire hydrant

* “street photography and personal documentary,” taught by jason wilder

** donna haraway (1991, 2016) often writes about the concept of noninnocence, as a way to grapple with complicity, even from positions of subjugation.

*** thank you for this articulation, kylie newcomer 🙂

not mine

white ribbon threaded onto a chainlink fence to spell out "apart but together"

part of the series fallow time: dispatches from a field suspended

my friends and interlocutors (conversation partners) often say beautiful, wondrous, and powerful things. waist-deep in field notes and preliminary interview transcripts, i’ve spun some of their utterances into a series of haiku. a kind of ethnopoetic bricolage.* the words that follow, lifted from nine conversations in five- and seven-syllable phrasings, are all theirs.

a commitment pear
to get the garden growing
oh, thank you spirit

keep the garden right
the heart of a black woman
make it beautiful

keep renaming us
i took the garden over
who the fuck are you?

you just crushed my heart
a white man in a black skin
be a garden bed

garden of outrage
braiding seeds into our hair
it’s a feel-good thing

neighbors down the street
companion planting ethic
seeing what blossoms

* see renato rosaldo on ethnopoesis and les roberts on bricolage in spatial anthropology. i am experimenting with imposing an arbitrary structure on ‘raw data’ as a method of writing and thinking on my way to more coherent ‘findings’ (while at the same time attempting to reject any hierarchy that marks more socially acceptable and legible forms of scholarship as more rigorous than the adjacent play and experimentation that makes these forms possible). i use a lot of scare quotes because i am profoundly uncertain about these terms. i take inspiration from projects like the hundreds by lauren berlant and kathleen stewart and forthcoming experimental work by peter benson.

pandemic cv

an urban street dead-ends between two warehouse buildings

part of the series fallow time: dispatches from a field suspended

a friend recently suggested that this odd feeling i’m experiencing is grief.*
i have to agree, though it’s mixed with other things.
grief for lives lost and forever altered, grief for vanishing jobs and livelihoods, grief for a time before we were under siege. though some of us have always been under siege. grief for whatever semblance of stability or security or certainty that is now gone. and all compounded exponentially for the poorest resourced among us.

but also, though less acute, grief for an imagined future and for the planning and labor that shaped it.

for me, and for fertile ground, this means a number of opportunities for learning, sharing, and connection that have been canceled or indefinitely postponed. instead of a resume, an academic has a curriculum vitae or cv, which is basically a long list of institutionally recognized and valued units of completed or in-progress labor. a published paper. a conference presentation. service on a committee. a book review. an award. a fellowship. a leadership appointment. in 2015, devoney looser wrote a piece for the chronicle of higher education describing a “shadow cv:” “the one i’d have if i’d recorded the highs and lows of my professional life, rather than its highs alone,” including “the many, many rejections.”

she goes on, “rejection is something you’re supposed to learn by experience, and then keep entirely quiet about. among academics, the scientists seem to handle rejection best: they list on their cvs the grants they applied for but didn’t get—as if to say, ‘hey, give me credit for sticking my neck out on this unfunded proposal. you better bet i’ll try again.’ humanists—my people—hide our rejections from our cvs as skillfully as we can. entirely, if possible.”

i’ve often thought: what if there were a shadow cv that didn’t just include official rejections, but ideas that never took off, collaborations that fell apart, events that were canceled, et cetera? below are some entries for my pandemic cv.

  1. for the american association of geographers annual meeting (april 2020, denver), a panel entitled “improvisation, imagination, and play in the postindustrial city,” that i organized and where i planned to present the paper “resistance is fertile: reclaiming urban space through art and play.” here is the abstract of that paper:

“our environment is man-made, literally! how would it be different if it was woman-made; if it was minority-made; if it was made by kids?” this question was raised by the director of rochester, new york’s community design center at a luncheon in 2019. in this paper, i describe three moments of “spatial entitlement” (johnson 2013) by women to highlight the ways in which race and gender intersect in the claiming of urban space in a postindustrial and highly segregated city. the children’s garden across from sirena’s house used to be three vacant city-owned lots littered with refuse; now squash blossoms tumble out of their beds in the sofrito garden while a group of mothers supervises a series of official neighborhood play days. downtown, the parking lot of planned parenthood gets “reclaimed” by a women of color artist collaborative who encourages attendees at their pop-up conversation and poetry reading on patriarchy and women’s bodies to plant hand-crafted protest signs in a “garden of outrage” along the side of the building. a month later, knitted, crocheted, and embroidered flowers (and the occasional strawberry and mushroom) envelope a metal railing on the former site of corinthian hall (now a holiday inn parking lot), where a large group (predominated by white women) have staged a participatory “craft intervention” to commemorate the rochester ladies anti-slavery sewing society and its links to frederick douglass. in rochester, empty lots are spaces of possibility for the envisioning of alternatives to “man-made” environments and for making claims to liberation.

(original panel canceled, shorter version of individual paper presented virtually)

  1. also for the geography meeting, comments for a roundtable on power and positionality in community geography (i may develop these comments and post them here at a later date).

(canceled)

  1. a local half-day “placemakerspace” planned by the working group on community-engaged public humanities (april 2020, woc art collaborative, rochester), of which i am a co-organizer. this event would have involved up to thirty participants moving through hands-on stations led by local artists to explore storytelling, public art, and photography as ways of thinking about place.

(postponed)

  1. a talk at brown university for the working group on anthropology and population (april 2020) entitled “‘edge effects’: cultivating race and place in a segregated city.” here is the abstract of that talk:

this is an ethnography carried out along the rough edges, cracks, and crevices in rochester, new york, one of the united states’ ten most segregated cities. a ‘report back’ from ongoing fieldwork with various residents and local organizations explores a series of actors and events that illuminate everyday life within the context of stark race and class inequality. deep mapping, facet methodology, relational ethnography, just visiting, and the multi-project site are methods for engaging ethically in these fraught ethnographic interstices.

(canceled)

  1. a local photography exhibition and reception (june 2020, frederick douglass resource center, rochester) for a “photovoice” project i have been working on in collaboration with common ground health examining the impact of healthy play spaces on three neighborhoods in the southwest and northeast quadrants of the city. in a photovoice project, residents are given cameras and asked to document their daily lives.

(to be determined as of this post, likely postponed)

  1. whatever in-person research activities i hoped to accomplish in the coming months, including participant observation at a gentrification conference, an urban design lecture series and accompanying workshops and community conversations, additional photovoice sessions, and a number of interviews and meetings about future collaborations. and the kinds of serendipitous encounters that punctuate the work, lead to new friendships, and produce unexpected “flashes of insight” (mason 2011).

(canceled or postponed)


this is a whole new kind of shadow cv. as looser argues, “what matters is what you do next.”
this is a redirection toward something better. i hope all of it is.

in the quiet, there are new things (very) slowly sprouting: an article manuscript examining the erasure of blackness in the local built environment, a series of short form writings for this website, a new volume of the zine exploring fallow time, another article manuscript about women’s placemaking practices and the gendered and raced reclamation of urban space through art and play, new photoethnography training and experimentation, a photoessay about an ‘urban walkabout,’ a grant proposal to continue this work over the next five years. i’m excited to share these with you as they develop, and list them here as a form of accountability and response-ability, rather than some fetishization of productivity (knowing full well that the list itself may be a failure of both–a paradox of the creative generation that fallow time can enable). “intermittent, spasmodic fruiting reminds us of the precarity of coordination–and the curious conjunctures of collaborative survival” (tsing 2015: 176). there is more to come.

* that friend was stefanie bautista

jello

a pile of pastel-colored tires in a grassy lot

part of the series fallow time: dispatches from a field suspended

my fieldwork is like jello. bear with me.

i am plagued.
with pressures. thoughts. ideas. inspiration. evidence. voices.
but i can’t organize any of it meaningfully.

it’s like a feeling of being trapped, or suspended, buried alive and unable to sprout.

or it’s like this.
i’m driving a truck. and as i carry out my fieldwork, i’m collecting jello. (i’m really collecting stories, and experiences, and information, and ideas, and insights, and pictures, and maps, and directions, and sights and smells and sounds and other things–‘data’ to be cold and clinical about it–but the metaphor works better with jello. whatever flavor you want.)

or maybe, to honor my ongoing botanical/gardening/agricultural metaphor, it’s more like tomatoes. yeah, something juicy, with a bit of squish. or even fertilizer. or compost! donna haraway writes about compost. self-identifying as a compostist (as opposed to a posthumanist), she notes that storytelling is “the seed bag for flourishing for compostists” (2016: 150). building on the work of anna tsing and others, haraway’s children of compost “insist that we need to write stories and live lives of flourishing and for abundance, especially in the teeth of rampaging destruction and impoverisation” (2016: 136). yes. compost seems right for fallow time. i like this idea of data/gatherings/cargo as compost.

compost must be turned over. and then it can turn into something new.

so i do some fieldwork, shovel some jello/tomatoes/fertilizer/compost into the bed of the truck.

this goes on for some months. the truck slowly fills with jello/tomatoes/fertilizer/compost.
and i’m driving along, probably a little too fast if i’m honest, and all of a sudden, something is in the road right in front of me, and i slam on the brakes.

the world stops for a moment, like in a dream.
and then all the jello/tomatoes/fertilizer/compost–a truckload, an abundant harvest, still animated by the momentum of our movement–comes flying forward into the cab of the truck, and hits me in the back of the head.

this reminds me of something sara ahmed wrote recently, drawing on audre lorde:
“i have been thinking about that: how sometimes we have to stop what we are doing to feel the true impact of something, to let our bodies experience that impact, the fury of an escalating injustice, a structure as well as an event; a history, an unfinished history.”*
“sometimes to sustain your commitments,” she says, “you stop what you are doing.” or you are stopped.

she continues, “in stopping, something comes out. we don’t always know what will come out when we stop to register the impact of something. registering impact can be a life-long project. perhaps collectives are assembled so we can share the work of registering the impact of what is ongoing; what is shattering.”

the truck is broken down. the world is broken down.

“i think sometimes you withdraw from a situation – driving a vehicle, being in the driver’s seat – to express your commitments. you close the door; stop the car because you need to get something out; you need to get yourself out.” (ahmed again). we need to get out of here, but all we can do is stay in. but all we can do is stay with the trouble.

this fieldwork thing isn’t fatal. but it is disorienting.
i’ll be scraping jello, tomatoes, fertilizer, compost, all of it, off my windshield for a while.

*thank you to julia tulke for pointing me to this brilliant piece of writing.

fallow time

pink painted flowers adorn an urban driveway

introducing fallow time: dispatches from a field suspended

fallow period, n. a period in which a fieldworker does no fieldwork

this is an anxious time.
this is a scary time.
this is a time of disruption and exposure and grief.

the field has ruptured.

i didn’t really imagine i would be writing in any kind of serious way about this research project online yet, but with the in-person components of my fieldwork indefinitely suspended due to COVID-19, i am at once slowed down and thrust into modes of analysis and writing that at times feel premature. however, since i have been trying to work in the spirit of sharing and creating out of provisional and “unabashedly unfinished” (jackson 2013: 19) work, i’ve decided to carve out a little plot here for process and processing. i’m going to cultivate some starts, soft shoots of short-form writing, photoessay, and artistic intervention.

these modes of creation have various ends, one of which is to render visible forms of labor that have been canceled, postponed, or would otherwise have gone unremarked upon. another is to render the fruits of ongoing work accessible more quickly than i could via my ‘normal’ channels of academic writing (books and articles), some of which have been slowed or paused, because “to continue as usual right now would be untenable and unethical.”

i have been reading and re-reading an op-ed from the new york times by bonnie tsui from june 21, 2019. it’s called “you are doing something important when you aren’t doing anything,” and it is about fallow time. in agriculture, fallow ground is land that is plowed but left unseeded during the growing season. this happens when a field has been removed from crop rotation. “fallow time,” tsui argues, “is necessary to grow everything from actual crops to figurative ones, like books and children. to do the work, we need to rest, to read, to reconnect. it is the invisible labor that makes creative life possible.”

when the virus bloomed and social isolation became the norm where i am and where i work, in my fieldsite, the researcher in me whispered “there is data here–go get it,” and i resisted. i am not interested in disaster ethnography. i will not pivot my whole project as a way to think about the spatial politics of pandemic. the questions i was interested in before the world changed are still interesting questions and they will remain so in the aftermath of the current disaster, which promises to be brutal and longlasting.* in the same ways that i am always trying to resist anthropology’s siren song of extraction, i am unwilling to be opportunistic in this moment. the reality is that i am here, on research leave but with research funds frozen “until further notice” and all in-person contact halted, with only one phd student and no undergraduates, no courses to move online, no children to homeschool–though i do have aging parents to check in on from thousands of miles away and relationships to maintain and a cat to care for–and so while many others have descended head-long into mission time, much of my existing work has dissolved into a receding horizon. but, in the moments when clouds of anxiety and despair have parted, this has opened up time to think. as tsui argues, “not everyone, of course, can leave the assembly line at will,” and i am immensely grateful for those currently weathering this unimaginable storm on the front lines. they are world-savers.

things happen when one slows down. last week my therapist asked me rhetorically “what grows in the quiet?” i’m curious about this too. fallow time is both a kind of rest and a kind of play. “i’m talking about an active refueling that can seem at odds with our fetishization of productivity,” tsui contends. writing in this space in this way allows me to play around with genre, form, subs(is)tance, visuals, methods, and process in new ways, within an arena in which i create the rules (and, importantly, set the schedule). “fallow time is part of the work cycle, not outside of it,” says tsui. it is a cultivation of “the white space for complex thinking and writing.” it is also a time to breathe, especially when that most basic of life-sustaining functions is threatened.

welcome to the fallow time of fertile ground. this is a multi-modal invitation for thinking, feeling, dreaming, grieving, existing, resting, and experimenting. it is an effort to collapse some social distance in a time of immense precarity.

please, take gentle care,
kate

* i am under no illusions that the project will be the same going forward. as deborah lupton recently argued, “we’re all COVID researchers now.”