When Worlds Collide
by Tria Airheart-Martin and Nels P. Highberg
Authors' Note: As we viewed the newest installation by St. Paul artist Colette Gaiter, SPACE/R A C E, at Project Row Houses, we realized how appropriate it was for us to be writing an article that raises issues generated by this work. Neither of us was born until just after the events of the 1960s that Gaiter focuses upon - the civil rights movement and the U.S. space program's efforts to put a man on the moon. However, we have had to grow up and live in a world greatly impacted by these historical battles and achievements. In 1986, we sat together in a high school English classroom and heard over the intercom how the space shuttle Challenger had exploded. We later attended college in separate cities but still watched the LA riots and the Hill/ Thomas hearings on television while taking courses that asked us to examine the place of gender, race and sexuality in American lives. We know firsthand the importance of what Gaiter has to say.
Gaiter creates an interactive space that, in the words of her artist's statement, encourages "contemplation rather than conclusion." Using text and images in forms ranging from print on paper to CD-ROM, she prompts the viewer to reflect upon her or his own place in a society shaped by "space" and "race." Our discussion takes the form of two linked essays because the ideas that struck each of us while in the exhibit space were different though clearly connected. The first essay is by Tria; the second is by Nels. Together, we hope our essays invoke the complex layers of meaning inherent in this interactive, multimedia presentation of the past.
Part of Project Row Houses, the setting of Colette Gaiter's SPACE/R ACE, is a renovated row house in Houston's Third Ward. Upon entering the installation, I was first struck by the lack of space; although all the walls that once divided the place into rooms have been removed, the house's interior is conspicuously small. It is hard to imagine, yet impos-sible not to acknowledge, that entire families lived in such a confined space - indeed, many still do. The computer in the center of the house seems remarkably out of place, highlighting the disparities of race and class that are pivotal to the questions posed by the installation, which centers on the developments of the civil rights movement and the space program between 1961 and 1969.
By focusing on media representations and interpretations of events, Gaiter poses questions to viewer/participant rather than offering pat answers to these difficult issues. The interactive multimedia construction of this installation serves this purpose well, allowing viewers to respond to and question the works, the media, and themselves in order to construct personal and meaningful versions of the installation. Because the space program and the fight for civil rights were both highly publicized, we often forget the private and individual aspects of these events; the domestic setting of the installation serves to make the questions it raises both local and significant to the individual viewer. It is tempting to imagine that this row house was home to people for whom civil rights was an immediate concern during the years discussed in its from Space/Race, 1997 current contents; at the very least, it is a reminder of the economic and personal issues at stake for all disadvantaged groups in our country. The use of space throughout the installation asks us to question the relationship between the public and private aspects of the issues and information it presents.
The first aspect of the installation that I viewed is the collection of window shades which are designed to remind the viewer of newspapers. In fact, the broad sheets of white paper are hung from the same sort of divided wooden rods that libraries use to keep current newspapers ready for readers. The text on these shades is printed in a two-column format that recalls newspaper columns, giving a timeline of public information from the years targeted by the installation. The occurrences described here are national, and because no sources are documented for them, they may be assumed to be common knowledge. The sunlight filtered through the shades illuminates their texts, offering a sort of literal enlightenment to the viewer as well as underscoring the "outside" nature of most of the events described. However, as the texts progress, the stories of individuals frequently come into play, forcing us to examine the nature of information which is formalized and validated through textual presentation.
The viewer soon realizes that individual lives both shape and receive the events that make up the news, a fact too easily forgotten in the age of mass media.
I also noticed that the text on the window shades is presented in three different fonts; each font designates a different subject. A serif font, reminiscent of newspaper text, is used when describing civil rights issues; a sans serif font, which we often associate with technology, highlights occurrences in the space program. A playful combination of cursive and sans serif becomes the medium for the discussion of all other issues of the period, including pop culture and literary events as well as the Vietnam War.
Framed collage-like pieces alternate with the window panels. While the text in the windows is sourceless and national, the framed works focus on Houston, suggesting Houston itself as a frame for these events. The written texts of these collages are excerpts from newspapers and magazines, giving them further focus and immediacy. The walls of the house itself hold these works, emphasizing the "close to home" location of these occurrences. Frequent references to Houston landmarks, institutions and public figures further draw attention to the fact that these news stories belong not only to the nation, but to ourselves. Again, fonts differentiate between the kinds of events combined in the texts; standard fonts describe events, while the more playful font works with places. Here, however, the texts resist neat columns, overlapping at odd angles, depicting the overlapping themes in these events and alluding to the fact that issues become more complex and confusing the more immediately they concern us.
The texts are laid over computer-generated color collages, which most often represent technical products made for popular use such as kitchen appliances, cars and nylons. No attempt is made to hide the pixels in these printouts, calling attention both to the technology used to produce them and that the viewer should see them as representations of objects rather than as the objects themselves. Kitsch is evoked in these pictures through the use of colors and images immediately recognizable as part of the pre-psychedelic 1960s, a time which is usually lumped in with the 1950s in the popular imagination. However, this sense of kitsch becomes ironic when overlaid with the serious subject matter of the texts. This was not as innocent an era as we like to imagine it to be, or as the popular culture of the time encouraged us to believe.
The nature of progress is a central question presented by Gaiter's collection of media. Space is discussed by many media figures in terms of a "blackness" that waits to be conquered and exploited in terms that disturbingly echo the treatment of African-Americans in the United States, as well as in terms of a Utopia where equality still might exist. Paradoxically, because it resists the presence of humans space still holds the possibility of equality. Yet as this installation shows, many of the space program's advocates expressed in poetic terms the purity of the universe of equality that they hoped to enter through space travel. Civil rights, on the other hand, is seen as a struggle for inner progress, a time when our country was building character through painful and often less publicized events.
Tria Airheart-Martin is a writer who lives in Bryan, Texas.
Integration functions as a key concept for understanding this exhibition. Not only, as Tria describes, do public events converge with the private setting of the home or lines of text overlap with each other in the framed prints, but images, texts, and ideas collide on the computer screen in the center of the room.
Through CD-ROM, Gaiter brings images of marches and rockets, voices of activists and astronauts, and ideas of power and progress into a conversation with each other. Our thinking about these issues broadens because Gaiter forces us to see the connections between what we are often taught to believe are disparate events.
Highlighting connections is one of the key purposes of hypertext and hypermedia. Anyone who has ventured onto the World Wide Web understands the basic intention of hypertext where clicking on a highlighted word takes us to a different but related site. For example, clicking on the phrase "Michel Foucault" when his ideas are mentioned in an analysis of 18th century literature can point us towards a greater, more in-depth discussion of this particular philosopher's beliefs. While hypertext often relates to the electronic linking of written texts, hypermedia expresses a more complex integration of text, image and sound. In this case, clicking on Foucault could enable us actually to hear his voice reading from one of his own essays. As the Web grows in complexity, hypertext and hypermedia have become interchangeable, and one line of poetry could connect to fifty various sites ranging from popular culture to science to anthropology.
This electronic reworking of texts further alters the way we normally read. Instead of moving our eyes from left to right as we scan a page from top to bottom, we use a mouse to point and click and jump and leap from word to word and line to line. Hypertext also, as George P. Landow notes in Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, "blurs the boundaries between reader and writer." We no longer allow the writer to determine how and what we read. Instead, readers choose when and when not to move to another site or explore a further connection. In many ways, readers become the authors of what they read. Hypertext, therefore, is truly interactive. Gaiter highlights this interactive nature in SPACE/R ACE. The viewer sits on a stool at the computer terminal in the center of the room and uses a mouse to maneuver through the world of the CD-ROM, simultaneously creating and viewing the exhibit. The starting screen depicts a dark, star-filled sky over a line of marchers, and clicking on some of the larger stars takes the viewer on an exploration of "space" and "race."
The larger title of the exhibition intentionally utilizes words with evocative connotations. There is the race to explore space, and there are the spaces in our country segregated by race. One section of the computer journey extends the analysis of the language used in these movements. Clicking on the words "crusade" and "mission" reveals how the astronauts were both on a crusade and a mission just as the civil rights marchers were on a crusade and a mission. Emphasizing other words expresses how landing on the moon and ending segregation were both over-due and inevitable. The space program and the civil rights efforts were presented by television and newspapers as two distinct yet important historical events; Gaiter shows how the underlying goals and beliefs shaping these movements were more connected than we may think.
Gaiter also accentuates the sexism that rests behind the notion of "one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind." In one area, full images of women are divided into separate shots of heads, torsos and legs, allowing the viewer to attach different heads to alternate bodies. These images include Barbie and other shots of women in dresses, makeup and heels. Manipulating the photos encourages reflection on our conceptions and memories of how women were involved in these events.
Other sections allow Gaiter to shift from an exclusive focus on these two movements by also stressing their connections to larger American culture. A focus on television displays the influence of history on popular culture, an influence reflected, for example, in the popularity of / Dream ofjeannie where Larry Hagman's Major Nelson worked as an astronaut for NASA. And after clicking on the image of one particular television set, the eerie them song of The Twilight Zone plays, reminding us of a show that explored a strange world so different from and similar to our own.
One final section-of the CD-ROM uses responses that Gaiter has received from surveys placed at the exhibition site (see sidebar). Asking people how they remember Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech and Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. This area reiterates the interactive nature of the entire exhibit by allowing the viewer to comment directly on the events at hand. Some of the comments come from those alive at the time these things happened, adding to the specificity and concrete reality of the exhibit. Other responses come from those of us not alive at the time but who still live with understandings of their historical influence, including the reply of one person who comments on how the picture of Neil Armstrong has been transformed into the television image of a man holding a flag that says MTV, an image prevalent on this cable channel in its initial broadcasts and that still appears on the statuettes given annually at the MTV Video Music Awards.
After sitting by the computer and playing with the mouse for a while, I looked around the room and became increasingly aware of the ironic nature of what I was doing. Computers are not supposed to be standard pieces of equipment in row houses like the one where this exhibit appears. People often banter around about how personal computers and the Internet signal the influence of technology around the world and throughout the society. It's supposed to be something that brings us all together. But does everyone truly have unlimited access to this resource? Or do some of us just like to think so, taking our own e-mail and homepages for granted? Gaiter not only forces us to reflect upon the past, but her materials and style of presentation heighten our consciousness of the present as well. ï
Nels P. Highberg is a writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio.
As part of the exhibition, SPACE/R ACE, Colette Gaiter asks viewers to answer two questions. She incorporates the answers into the CD-ROM portion of the exhibit. We present our responses below, hoping they inspire others to participate in this ongoing project. Answers can be sent to: Colette Gaiter, 1342 Simpson Street, St. Paul, MN 55108, or, firstname.lastname@example.org
What comes to mind when you think of: Martin Luther King's / Have A Dream speech?
Tria: "I have a dream ..." This is the only part of the speech I know by heart, the bit I've always seen cut from the rest, slightly out of synch with a grainy black and white screen. When I think of this speech, I first feel a remarkable sense of guilt for never sitting through the whole thing. It makes me sad to think I've only experienced it as a sort of historical cliche on television, a glorified sound bite. It's hard to recall a sense of it in any larger form; the rest of it floats somewhere in space, out of reach of our shortened attention spans. It seems as if it will always be available later if I want to hear it in full, but in the meantime it has become something else, a movement that affected millions truncated into a mere four words that are trotted out on special occasions, when we hope to prove to ourselves how advanced we are.
Nels: For some reason, the first thing I think of is The Cosby Show. I remember an episode around King's birthday where the family sat around and the grandparents discussed what it was like to attend the march and hear King give this speech. I remember feeling a big sense of togetherness as I listened to them. The mentioned the number of whites who attended the march, I guess so as not to alienate the predominately white audience. Not only do I only know this speech through its recordings, but my strongest memory is even further mediated by television.
The first landing of the lunar module and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon?
Tria: When I was in school, this was one of the tests of age - not "Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?" but "Where were you when Armstrong walked on the moon?" It was a test that separated generations, and one that I failed. I didn't remember us landing on the moon; I hadn't been born then. For years I felt a vague sense of alienation when the subject came up. I wanted to have this memory as my own, wanted to have experienced it directly instead of as a historical fact that precluded me. I wanted to have seen it on my television for myself, to have it be part of what defined me, to feel less like an afterthought. "We" landed on the moon, they said, and it was a "we" that I knew could never include me.
Nels: I was born two months to the day after the moon landing, so for me this is mostly a simple marker in time.