GUEST POST BY DAMIEN JAMES
Part one of two.
I recently attended a community conversation with New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof, who was speaking about the oppression of and cruelty toward women throughout much of our global society, as illuminated with provocative bluntness and intelligence in the new book Half the Sky. A collaboration with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, the book earned the first Pulitzer ever awarded to a wife and husband team. WuDunn was not present for the conversation, but Kristof illustrated one of her connections to the subject matter by relating a story about WuDunn’s grandmother, who grew up in China and was a victim of foot binding.
The conversation was made possible by Facing History and Ourselves, an “international educational and professional development organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism,” with the intent to promote a more informed and humane citizenry.
I am uncertain as to why the Thorne Auditorium of Northwestern University was not fully attended; there must have been at least 732 people in the Chicago area who had time for this event, who might have walked away from the evening filled with a certain shock and awe after finding that their quotient for compassion had increased considerably, which I would credit to the in-depth interviews and profound friendships embarked upon by WuDunn and Kristof as they spent time in Africa, Asia, and South America.
According to Kristof, the central moral challenge of the 19th century was slavery. In the 20th century it was the battle against totalitarianism. And in the 21st century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle against discrimination of women and children. One might argue that the former still exist in the latter, but by the end of the presentation, that women are still treated like second-class citizens – especially in third world countries, but certainly not limited to them – becomes quite clearly a truth beyond argument.
Kristof’s stories were often painful and graphic, and most importantly, personal. It was clear that he knew the women and children he spoke of, that he shared in their pains to some extent as they shared their stories with him, that he actually looked in their eyes and allowed himself to be affected by them.
He radiated a realistic sympathy as he spoke, and rather than try to make people feel guilty for how little they contribute to solving problems which seem far too large to tackle, Kristof focused – just as Half the Sky does – on making these insurmountable problems approachable by offering ways to get involved and engaged in the lives of women on the other side of the world, lives which can be radically changed by even the smallest generosity in the briefest of moments.
Beyond relating his experience and educating us about what we could do, Kristof offered hope as he spoke of women who have started fighting back, despite unbelievable odds and misogynistic patriarchal societies, not only improving their own lives but those of women around them, and in some cases gaining international attention for their cause.
In a moment I’m going to share some of these avenues for contributing to positive social change, but first I want to share some of the stories Kristof offered at the community conversation and through the book, because the myriad humanitarian crises which literally surround us are predominantly relegated to the back of our thoughts in abstraction; and there is certainly a reason for this psychic numbing.
How could we pay our Chase bills and watch the game or Idol or Top Chef, how could we Facebook our thoughts on the character arcs of Lost and Twitter our excitement at a Black Eyed Peas concert if we were always thinking about how acceptable it is to throw acid in a woman’s face in a country we have little or no desire to ever visit? And I’m not just singling out fans of “reality” TV or Facebook and Twitter users. To be honest, I think such social networks have an amazing amount of untapped potential, but it might be that not enough social entrepreneurs are using these networks to get our attention in a lasting way.
Is it powerful enough to state that 3 million women and girls worldwide can be fairly termed as enslaved in the sex trade? That, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, there are more than 100 million women simply missing in the world today? That girls in India from age one to five are 50 percent more likely to die than boys in the same age group because of the value placed on gender? (Such discrimination kills up to 2 million girls each year worldwide.) That 21 percent of Ghanaian women reported their first sexual experience was rape? That 17 percent of Nigerian women had endured rape or attempted rape by the age of nineteen, and 21 percent of South African women reported that they had been raped by the age of fifteen?
I don’t really even want to talk about the rates of maternal mortality in some countries, nor the number of women each year who suffer from fistula as a result of rape, women who are then ostracized from their homes because of the easily but rarely treated condition.
Such numbers just become fog, pressed back and out of our thoughts as we go through our day, which is why, Kristof argues, it is so important to personally connect with someone, to actively pursue a relationship.
Is it easier to remember – or harder to forget – if we see a photograph of Long Pross, a Thai girl who, at the age of thirteen was kidnapped and sold to a brothel in Cambodia? When Pross rebelled, the female brothel owner punished her by gouging out Pross’ eye with a metal rod.
Or Meena Hasina, an Indian Muslim who was eight years old when she was kidnapped and trafficked. In the dozen years that Meena was held in the brothel, she had two children and was beaten an average of five days a week. Her children were considered property of the brothel.
Is it harder to forget Zoya Najabi, an Afghan girl who was married at twelve and subjected to constant corporal punishment at the hand of her husband and mother-in-law? Zoya’s husband regularly beat her with an electrical cable until she fell unconscious. Her mother-in-law whipped the soles of her feet.
These stories are not isolated occurrences, nor are they plucked from some macabre dark age; they are entirely contemporary. Nor are they even the worst of what Kristof and WuDunn have to report. And while it might be easy to think that these women, children in many cases, should just flee, it is never that simple. The threat of punishment and death lies around every corner for many women in societies which condone such treatment in the first place.
Often the police in many of the countries Kristof and WuDunn frequent are bribed by brothels, intimidated by gangs, and will send women away with scorn for their audacity at even showing their dishonorable faces to the authorities. Occasionally police even beat the women seeking help, and there have been reports of women being raped by police before they’re pushed back out on the streets.
Again, Half the Sky is not simply a litany of abuse. It is also a lifeline for involvement, for there are as many heroes to encourage as there are villains to infuriate, women who have taken a stand against the injustices they were not only born into but also fully expected to accept.
Women like Edna Adan, who grew up in Somalia. (According to Kristof, the local camels had more freedoms than the women.) At eight years old, Edna was circumcised, joining the ranks of millions of girls who are forced to undergo the traditional procedure intended to reduce sexual desire and promiscuity for the sake of becoming more marriageable.
If this seems barbaric, consider that Edna is from an enlightened family, that her parents not only allowed her to have an education but also encouraged her to do so. Now a fierce opponent of genital cutting, she became Somalia’s first qualified nurse-midwife and eventually the countries first lady, marrying the prime minister. Edna went on to work for the UN and eventually retired from her post to open a hospital, which she was able to do with the support of women from around the world.
Mukhtar Mai, from a peasant family in southern Punjab, was sentenced to be publicly raped as punishment for a crime that her brother allegedly committed. Mukhtar prepared to commit suicide, a normal method of dealing with such situations in Pakistan, but was prevented by her parents, who kept constant vigil over her.
Eventually Mukhtar’s shame and depression became rage, which gave her the strength to report the rape to the police and demand prosecution. President Musharraf became aware of the case and sympathized, awarding Mukhtar the equivalent of over $8,000, which she used to invest in what she felt her village needed most: a school. The story spread and Mukhtar became revered for her courage and conviction; she was honored in several countries and went on to open more schools and raise the level of visibility for abused women everywhere.
In fact, each injustice in Half the Sky is followed by a survivor’s tale, someone who has turned their world around by sheer force of will.
Kristof pointed to the importance of education as intervention – the primary tool to dismantle the machinery of abuse which still runs largely unchecked in many countries – stating that education leads to professionalism which leads to community enrichment, a virtuous cycle. And while he pulls no punches about the fact that there is no easy solution to any of the problems facing women in the third world, Kristof has plenty of details, first-hand experience with individual women and girls and entire communities that have benefited from relatively small donations toward schooling.
For example, it costs only ten dollars a year to keep a girl in school in rural China, while fifteen dollars for a uniform is all that separates some African girls from a classroom. In Cambodia, the average girl has only 1.7 years of education; often in poor countries like Cambodia, girls drop out of school young – if they ever attended at all – to work and contribute to the family income.
It is when young girls join the work force that they are more susceptible to being trafficked, lured to different cities with the promise of a job, only to find themselves locked in a room empty of everything but a mattress. Cambodia has taken steps to curb trafficking by offering financial incentives to parents who keep their kids in school with perfect attendance, but it is far from a perfect system. There have been many instances of abduction while girls are walking long distances to or from their schools.
Despite how bottomless the problems of abuse and slavery in the sex trade are, both the community conversation and the book end with incredible positivity. Kristof and WuDunn have contributed so much of their time and money to improving conditions for women around the world and have seen direct results that their thrust is to encourage us to do the same, to express our humanity by taking incremental steps toward solving massive problems. Half the Sky ends with a chapter called Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes, a crash course in contributing to positive social change. As promised, here they are:
1. “Go to www.globalgiving.org or www.kiva.org and open an account. Both site are people-to-people (P2P), meaning that they link you directly to a person in need overseas.” Global Giving lets you choose and contribute to grassroots projects in education, health, and disaster relief, among many others, in the developing world. Kiva allows you to connect to entrepreneurs as a microlender; just as kickstarter microfinances creative projects, Kiva helps fund women to start their own businesses.
2. “Sponsor a girl or woman through Plan International, Women for Women International, World Vision, or American Jewish World Service.” Kristof and WuDunn are sponsors and have exchanged letters with and made visits to children in the Philippines, Sudan, and the Dominican Republic.
4. “Join the CARE Action Network at www.can.care.org. This will assist you in speaking out, educating policy makers, and underscoring that the public wants action against poverty and injustice. This kind of citizen advocacy is essential to create change.”
Though it might only take ten minutes of your time, Kristof and WuDunn insist that these steps are just to break the ice. Half the Sky has a comprehensive appendix of organizations to connect with, should one feel particularly meaningful, and then the authors encourage readers to dive in.
Ten short minutes can change things. The family of one young Zimbabwean woman was given a goat through Heifer International, a gift that so radically improved their economic position that they were able to send their daughter to school in America. She has since returned and begun giving back to her community.
Ten dollars took a girl in China from poverty to formal education, which she used to better her entire village. Once barely able to scrape by on subsistence farming, the community now has wood and brick homes with electricity and a thriving export business, all because of a girl who was given the opportunity to go to school.
Kristof is also quick to admit that such problems are not unique to third world countries, that many cases of abuse and oppression exist in our own back yard, but there simply wasn’t room in Half the Sky to focus on domestic issues, something he plans to remedy in the future.
Read part two of two on Tuesday. If you want to.
Damien James is a self-taught artist and writer living (barely) and working (constantly) in Chicago. He has contributed to Chicago Reader, New City, Saatchi Gallery Online, Art Voices, and the general goodwill of mankind, among other things. His art has been seen in Chicago’s Around the Coyote Gallery and Aldo Castillo, Brooklyn’s 3rd Ward Gallery with Art House Co-op’s Sketchbook Project and Rhonda Schaller, various apartments in Berlin, London, Mumbai, and a tiny village in Romania.
Once a long time ago, back when I was a pious art dude scouring the web for feelings/opinions about art in Chicago, I used to relish and hitting refresh on your podcast pages and more recently the “new” blog. The comment sections there were a source of snickering, consternation, approval, dismay and WTFness. It was also a place to *facepalm*. It epitomized for me a simultaneously voyeuristic community that is silently opinionated (the anon’s) while at the same time coming off as grossly redundant by the self-promoting (the signed-in’s). There were also a lot of useful in-between comments that reflected a more intelligent community.
Then, inexplicably, it got phased out. (And by phased out I mean comments went from always there, to being available for a couple of days and then turned “off”, and finally, as of April 14, 2010 – completely gone.)
I miss them horribly. I also have the feeling that I’m not the only one.
I also know why you did it, or at least I have a good idea why. Anybody who was as interested in the comments as I was knows why too. Really, there is no need to rehash those things here except to say that I was often appalled by what I read. At the same time I learned and liked a lot: history, ideas, theory, Richard’s comic book stuff, Amanda’s insanely awesome cackle-laugh. Speaking of history, I hoped Christopher archived those comments. There must be pages and pages of them. Lots of good stuff and horrible stuff, all invaluable. I smell a zine in the making.
Now you guys are the big time – with your own openings, famous artists/dealers/curators/museum directors and blogger friends all over the world. You are still BaS, still awesome and still essential, but you’ve self-censored yourselves. I know it was hard to monitor the bullshit that happened in those comments and you played Switzerland very well most of the time (Duncan got a little testy here and there – but that’s cool). Can’t you find a new unpaid intern to do this for you, the next Meg Onli?
So what happens now? You post this letter (I hope) and then no one can comment on it? Wait, can I say whatever the hell I want right now? AND NO ONE CAN DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT! Anyways, thanks for receiving this letter to the editor, and I hope this rant makes up for all the time I was an anon.
First and foremost, thanks for sending your concern our way. When we removed comments with the new site launch on November 1st, 2009 I had expected we would have received a lot of flack via email. But alas, this is the first to grace our inboxes. Also, I appreciate your understanding of why we turned comments off.
When I first joined BaS back in 2006 there had been talks about what to do about comments that were getting out of hand. Mainly the name-calling and *facepalming* (as you so eloquently put it). I was adamantly against it as were the majority of members. But, over the past 4 years my opinion has changed. When I took over the blog and began “managing” other bloggers (Claudine excluded) I started to see offensive comments in a different light. These were people I worked with being attacked and many people I had asked to participate with us declined and listed the uncouth comments as a reason. I am up for debate but the behavior that was happening was getting out of hand and at times embarrassing. Although there were great things that did happen in the comments section it seems that much of what is missed was the “He said what?” aspect. (I use the male pronoun because they overwhelmingly dominated the space.)
Monitoring comments, although an option is really not something that is feasible for us currently. To set up an adequate moderation of comments would mean either sacrificing some aspect of the project or finding someone that solely wants to focus on that. If someone would like to moderate comments on a daily basis please email us and we would consider it.
With all that being said, Claudine and I have been working to open up the blog. Our series, “Off-Topic” was one small solution to having outside voices on the site. We have also been discussing how we can use the Bad at Sports’ facebook page in a way that will facilitate more conversations. If anyone has any suggestions we would be totally up for hearing them.
I would just rather be known for the place to go to hear/read artists having conversations and not the place to go and see people sling mud at each other.
Thanks for the letter,
Britton, as you well know I have always respected your opinion and your feedback examines the issue in a complete and thorough way, I could not possibly have put is so succinctly.
The reason we, after a vast amount of hand wringing and debate, ended the ability to post comments was due to the increasing amount of time we had to spend dealing with off-blog correspondence from people who were mad as hell that someone said something about them, posted under their name, and/or were afraid to post commentary or contribute feature pieces to the blog as they did not want to endure the at time acrimonious personal attacks. We went so far as to have a meeting to discuss the issue face-to-face and examine it from all sides. Monitoring the messages seemed like a solution, deleting offending posts, but I cannot, and will not act as occasional censor. I find censorship in all its forms be an aberration, I think that it is unfair and totally subjective to pick and choose who says what, I don’t want to be deleting the posts of someone who I think is a jackass. Just because someone in a jackass does not mean they don’t add to the dialog. So we would be posed with defining the rules for deleting posts. We agreed on the big things, direct threats, criminal behavior, libel (which is a stickier wicket), but then you get to more difficult issues of who defines who is a bully, who is a troll, who is a schmuck. We couldn’t do it in a way that would make for articulable rules.
So in the absence of some clear mandate, we were left with two choices, leave things be, and continue to diffuse possible problems (and potential litigation) or we pull the plug and the hell with it, disappointing, but certainly something that would resolve the problem. While a cop-out we all have jobs, partners, obligations, many have kids, there are times where we opt for the path of least resistance. Not ideal, but true.
Meg, now the Editor in Chief of our blog, the person who essentially runs at least half of the BAS empire, started as our intern. She is amazing and has worked harder than anyone during her time at BAS. If I was paid for this, she would have to be paid more than I was as she earned it.
Sadly, finding an intern with the work ethic and vision of Meg is a one in a million and I don’t see us getting someone to pitch in sufficiently to create and police a new comment system.
So, we are left with encouraging listeners/readers to submit letters such as your and phone comments (312-772-2780). I fear you have been more-or-less the lone voice who has given feedback post removal. Under we have a better plan, we need to stick with what we are doing. Send all better plans my way!
As a quick post script all of the comments are still on display with their corresponding posts and we view them as an invaluable part of the Bad at Sports site. In the end the trade was made to get better articles from more people. Remember anyone can pingback any of our articles with their responses on their respective blogs or sites. We never want to limit the volume of talk but had to trim the audible volume of the talk.
Got a response to this post? Let us know! Email your response to email@example.com. We’ll feature thoughtful responses to issues generated by our posts in our Letters to the Editors Feature.
Off-Topic invites artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers to discuss a subject not directly related to the practice of making art. We would like to welcome Elijah Burgher as our latest guest. Earlier this week Elijah participated in the magic-themed Cabinet of Curiosities at the MCA, hosted by Bad at Sports’ Duncan MacKenzie. His Off-Topic post takes the form of a narrated YouTube tour of his favorite group Coil.
COIL ARE MY FAVORITE
On November 13, 2004, Jhonn Balance died after falling from a second floor landing in his home. His death effectively ended the mighty Coil, which he had founded in 1982 with Peter “Sleazy” Chistopherson. Along with Psychic TV and Chris & Cosey, Coil rose from the ashes of Throbbing Gristle—Sleazy is a member of TG, who recently resurrected—and, with Current 93, Nurse with Wound,
Death in June, plotted a new course for the various strains of experimental music that issued from the first wave of industrial music in the mid-to-late 70s. For more information about the band’s history and recordings, look at the Threshold House site, Brainwashed’s Coil page, or the brief entry on them on the Disinformation site.
Coil are also my favorite. I love a lot of things, and have named possibly hundreds of artists, bands, filmmakers, books, etc. as my “favorite” at one time or another. When Claudine asked me to write an Off-Topic post for the BaS blog, I knew I wanted to write about something that I loved, and considered Swans’ Children of God, Dennis Cooper’s George Myles cycle, and Pasolini’s Salo, the latter of which I’ve seen too many times to justifiably claim anything resembling mental health. But Coil really are my favorite. They are what I listen to when I work in my studio. And I have a Coil t-shirt that I consider a good luck talisman and wear when I feel particularly stressed out or sad. They inspire exactly this type of ecstatic, pathologically intense fandom in their followers. For this blog post, I’ll be leading you through some of my favorite songs by the band.
Balance had long suffered from alcoholism and drug abuse, which contributed to his untimely death. Since we started with news of his death, here is “Heartworms,” where he reflects self-deprecatingly on his addictions, intoning “there’s too much blood in my alcohol.” (Also I stole the name of my drawing blog from a lyric in this song: “Ghosts vomit over me.”) An enterprising YouTuber has added a super 8 short by Derek Jarman for visuals:
I first heard Coil when I was a teenager and a big fan of industrial music. I loved Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Pigface, and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. Originally, I had picked up their cd, Love’s Secret Domain, because I’d buy anything Wax Trax put out. It came out in 1991, so I must have been 13 or 14 since I didn’t buy it too long after it had been released. That record soundtracked much of my high school years, from toothy teenage blowjobs to acid comedowns watching the dancing patterns of my bedsheets, and numerous late night sessions hunkered over my journal writing bad poems and drawing cute boys. I remember playing their track “The Snow” on repeat. It is now a veritable classic of early 90s house music, albeit still somewhat anomalous for the genre. Here is the “Answers Come in Dreams II” remix from “The Snow Ep”: [Read more]
Off-Topic invites artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers to discuss a subject not directly related to the practice of making art. We would like to welcome Caroline Picard as our latest guest with her post, “Smells like a Movie Star”. Caroline is the director of Green Lantern Gallery and Press. She is an artist and writer currently based in Chicago.
SMELLS LIKE A MOVIE STAR
Celebrities always line supermarket check out lines, always peering at you from glossy magazines dedicated to the torrential madcap folly of their lives. Their faces, bodies, lifestyles wallpaper not just culture but also the basic practice of obtaining foodstuffs. The ubiquitous presence of persona/brands like Jennifer Aniston, Johnny Depp etc., reinforce particular moirés about success, beauty and sexuality. Where repetition and familiarity elicit desire, the repeated surface of the celebrity remains the poster child of consumer society, reinforcing the criteria with which non-celebrities (that’s us) measure their own legitimacy, accomplishment and worth. Celebrity provides a filtered perspective through which we view and interpret immediate experience, history and cultural production. The celebrity exemplifies a model for success which, while applauding the individual in an immediate sense, further stabilizes predominant hierarchical structures of society. To consider the influence such a model has on the contemporary art world is of particular interest because of its function as an historically transgressive and transformative force in culture.
Despite the art world’s (partially self-inflicted) reclusiveness, it has an inextricable relationship to the economic market. That relationship is no doubt reinforced by the ever-increasing number of art students who graduate from secondary institutions and, understandably, expect their respective art practices to afford some semblance of a “career.” The very idea that one’s status as art marker can be ‘taught’ is already far from the modernist perspective of artist as a vessel of inspiration. Similarly the sense of the struggling, starving, or “crazy” Van Gogh type-artist also feels old hat, a dusty model which, while adopted by some, nevertheless has been replaced by a new concept, i.e. artist as entrepreneur. Today the artist is expected to negotiate practical obligations in the world, she is encouraged to make a website, to show up on time, to write courteous letters to gallerists, and even develop—consciously or not—a public persona. While I tend to prefer the latter attitude of art as ‘learnable’ (because as a learnable occupation it is denied some of its precious mysticism), it is all the more difficult to see how art can provide new ways of thinking if its modus operandi is dependent on the closed system career-ism of work-as-commodity.
This just in: Wellington Reiter, who was appointed the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s fourth President in 2008, has resigned. He sent the following email to members of the School of the Art Institute / Art Institute of Chicago community earlier this afternoon:
Dear Members of the SAIC/AIC Community,
It has been an honor and privilege to serve the School of the Art Institute over the past two academic years and to establish rewarding relationships with all of you. It is thus with the greatest respect and deep sentiment that I inform you of my decision to step down as president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago following graduation.
The past few weeks have been a time of deliberation for me as I contemplated the direction of my career, the needs of the School, and what we have accomplished together. As I highlighted in my most recent newsletter to the community, there are many items to celebrate at SAIC thanks to the collective effort of faculty, staff, students, and the Board of Governors. However, after much thought, I have decided to return to my ongoing work linking the fields of art, design and sustainable urbanism. These issues have always been my passion and I look forward to devoting my full attention to the creation of sustainable city models on a global basis.
Chicago is an extraordinary city and I am grateful for the experiences I have enjoyed here and within the School. I believe that SAIC is on a trajectory that will strengthen the student experience in ways that will ensure continued growth and success. I depart knowing that there is a strong and talented faculty and administration dedicated to supporting these most ambitious students as they develop into mature artists, designers, and thinkers. It is their optimism and hopefulness that certainly drives us all.
As I begin the transition to my new research efforts, a committee composed of senior administrators and faculty will work closely with the Chairman of our Board of Governors to help assure that the School’s operations will continue uninterrupted.
It has been a pleasure to contribute to this community and I wish each of you and SAIC the best in the future.
Wellington “Duke” Reiter
UPDATE: Here’s a copy of SAIC’s Official Press Release on Reiter’s resignation, via Pedro Velez/@JonesDistrict. Reiter, an architect and artist, was appointed President in 2008, after Tony Jones was appointed to the position of Chancellor of the School of the Art Institute.