California farming gets an authentic new look. Like it or not.
In my Maharam Fellowship proposal, I pledged to “meet farmers on their own turf” – to get myself to the physical place where issues were unfolding. Given this commitment, my first invitation to visit a grower’s property brought with it a heady mix of excitement and trepidation. I was a month into the project and finally things were about to get real. Here’s a journal excerpt from the day before:
July 28 2016,
Tomorrow, I drive to a vineyard in Denair, California, to interview Al Rossini, a grape grower.
A month ago, I set out to write about grower’s experiences navigating groundwater regulation. This is my first trip to a functioning farm.
It’s not that I haven’t been reaching out. I’ve cold called, chased down and interviewed a dozen people so far. Half of them are part time growers or ranchers. But we’ve met in their offices, or the halls of meeting rooms and conferences, not their farms. I’ve even put a couple hundred miles and a stubborn layer of dust to my folks’ Honda Civic, plowing through the Central Valley. But I’ve parked at farm bureaus, not farms.
Several hundred miles, months and parental favors later, I can see that things were already real before I set foot on a farm. My experience on the vineyard the next day was indeed formative, but it didn’t mark a sudden turn to the authentic.
I now see the large amount of time I’ve spent in meetings and offices not as a failure of my project, but as a point of entry into the story of a changing industry. I wasn’t the only one in those meetings surprised by the amount of time I was spending indoors.
Over the past 25 years, environmental regulations have reshaped the California agriculture industry. They have brought with them an ever increasing need for oversight, meetings, and paperwork, not to mention consultants, legal counsel, and lobbyists to keep further regulation at bay.
This shift is deeply trying for many farmers and landowners. Not only do regulations add another expense and source of uncertainty, they also threaten to interfere with established lifestyles. More and more of the work required to maintain a farming operation takes place in the office. Keeping pace requires engaging in meetings, paperwork or hiring someone to do so on your behalf – and often both. For people who may well have chosen their line of work to avoid sitting at a desk all day this can be depressing.
As one of the nations’ biggest food producers, California agriculture has a lot on its plate. CA agriculture operates at massive scale to meet demand. At this scale, the management decisions that farmers make have wide reaching societal consequences. Much is at stake- protecting against the contamination or depletion of groundwater reserves that other communities rely on for drinking water.
These are the kind of consequences that state regulation seeks to prevent by holding farmers accountable for their impact on the land the farm and the resources that flow through it. But for many farmers, the lived experience of working the land at scale fosters a narrative of self reliance and independence, not one where the minutia of one’s management choices belong in the public domain. Farmers have to be independent enough to choose the relative solitude of rural life, and bold enough to take major financial risks- and live with the consequences. They’ve got to be self-reliant and, unsurprisingly often believe they have a right right not to be interfered with. It makes sense that a farmer would expect the right to be left alone– just as it makes sense that government would intervene.
As much as it hurts, the new regulations -and the types of work and spaces they force into the agricultural life- are not going anywhere. This work they require is not a distraction from the real work of farming. It is real farm work. However frustrating, it can only be understood as a new authentic part of the farming experience.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, described in my second blog post, will usher in new level of cultural challenges between regulators and farmers. Whereas previous regulations have constrained farmers by making them measure and report on the levels of various pollutants on their property, SGMA goes beyond patrolling contamination, inserting itself into matters of volume pumped. For the first time, an outside force will have the ability to impose sanctions on growers for removing water from their own property, effectively forcing a grower to fallow some of his or her land.
In anticipation of sizable resistance, SGMA is founded on the principle of grower self-governance. SGMA explicitly calls for the formation of grower-run Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, or GSAs. This is a government enforced call asking farmers to incorporate meeting with each other and watching each other’s pumping into the hardwired rules of doing business.
Al Rossini, the grower I visited in late July, gets whats at stake here. Now is his 70s, Rossini is a third generation Italian farmer in the central valley. He’s served on boards and committees for the past 25 years, witnessing first hand the regulatory changes underway. He’s part of a team working on forming a GSA. He comes from a family that prioritized participation in meetings, town events – a value he noticed other families did not share.
“I know a lot of good growers who don’t show up for these kinds of meetings” he said. He gets that going to meetings takes time away from the farm and can be frustrating, but to him, as a property owner, its crucial: “If you want to stay in business you’ve got to stay involved.”
After our first two weeks in Cuba, we began to shift gears and prioritize our own personal explorations of family narrative and environment. In the meantime, Fundacion Amistad and Ennead were reviewing our documented material in order to layout questions and identify opportunities for further research. They would then develop design formats for the work sessions in Vedado in preparation for the Planning Symposium, which had been rescheduled for December. FA was simultaneously working to gain official approval for these events. FA plans to return to Havana with Ennead to present their findings and conduct work sessions with the local community in order to collect their feedback and suggestions.
Because our work for FA and Ennead was temporarily out of our hands, we decided to travel out of Havana in order to meet family and see more of Cuba. We left Havana with one of Nick’s cousins, Lourdes, and her husband Roberto. Lourdes is a medical physician and Roberto works at the US Embassy in Havana. He was once a champion cyclist, who earned the title crocodilo (crocodile) because of his wildly crooked teeth. They generously offered us a room in their home and were eager to cook for us and pack our bags and suitcases with as much guava fruit as possible. We spent most of our time telling stories over home cooked meals or sitting outside under their mango tree. They told us a funny story about their marriage of thirty-five years. Lourdes and her husband wanted to invest in a second home in order to resell it and make a profit. Because it is illegal to own more than one property in Cuba, their financial advisor suggested they get a divorce and remarry after purchasing the second property. And that they did. They looked at each other and laughed as they recalled how odd it was to secretly divorce and openly remarry a week later with their two adult sons at their wedding. Roberto said he is probably the the only idiot to ever marry the same woman twice. Throughout our trip, we heard many people say, “en Cuba, la cosa esta complicada” (in Cuba, it’s complicated), and this was just another one of those circumstances that required some problem solving and creativity. They now have two homes in Havana and are working to sell the second home in order to send money to their sons who have recently begun new lives in Miami.
After a day or two on the outskirts of Havana, we left for Matanzas on a large bus with all of our belongings. We were paranoid we would miss our stop and spent the morning watching the sun rise and with it the dense fog dissipated and exposed the drowsy, wet, green lands of rural Cuba. Three hours later, we arrived in Matanzas and were greeted by another one of Nick’s cousins, Guillermo Nicholas. He walked us back to his home and invited us in for some coffee. He is considered the unofficial historian of the Febles family. He told us about Sabino, nicks grandfather, and how determined he was to leave Cuba with his wife and two daughters. And as I listened to him rocking back and forth in his chair, I thought about my grandparents and their two daughters. I remembered my mother showing me the small blue leather suitcase they used to carry the few belongings they could pack before fleeing to America. I remembered my grandfather having us promise we would never go back to Cuba while it was a communist country. I caught myself drifting into thought and returned my attention to Guillermo’s description of Sabino, a true guajiro, who represented a dying breed of men. These were men born and raised in el campo (countryside) dedicating their lives to cultivating the lands and harvesting crops; anything and everything from sugar cane to tobacco. When Sabino was trying to leave Cuba, the government was sending people to work in the fields of henequen as a kind of punishment for choosing to leave. El henequen yields fiber for making rope and twine but its leaves are long and sharp and can be painful to work with. Like many other Cubans who wanted to flee at the time, he was sent to work indefinitely until the Cuban authorities decided he would be allowed to leave. I pictured Sabino in the fields of henequen and thought of a man I saw in Havana cutting the grass on his lawn with a machete. I remembered my grandmother’s machetes propped up next to our washing machine in the linen closet; a large one and a small one. I remembered my grandmothers hands, particularly the perfect curve of her thumb like a crescent moon. I could picture her pearlescent manicure and her skin littered with brown speckles from the sun; a guajira no doubt.
Guillermo Nicholas gave us a small tour of Matanzas, often stopping to say hello to his friends and introduce the two young strangers that accompanied him. The streets of Matanzas were more narrow than those of El Vedado, more like the streets of Old and Central Havana; populated and bustling with voices and colors. Colors like the ones painted onto the balconies of apartments in Vedado, as signifiers of ownership and individuality. Sometimes they were colors that reminded me of clustered love birds or a freshly diced avocados paired with the tired pastels of old record covers and antique wallpaper. Colors exposing colors in layers of thick, pealing paint on walls or lines and lines of clothing hung out to dry in the day’s resilient heat. Arrangements of colors that seemed to recall the 1960s and 1970s, much like parts of Miami still do. At times, Nick and I felt the odd sensation of being in both Cuba and Miami all at once. It was as though our context could belong to either place or both. Sometimes we would sit in someones home for a time and feel as though we could walk out and find ourselves in Miami. As we moved through Cuba, there was an undeniable sense of familiarity and the identification of Miami’s ancestry.
Ulisis Rodriguez Febles, a playwright and another cousin of Nick’s, arrived in Guillermo’s home to greet us and take us on his own tour of Matanzas. He invited us to dinner with his family. We laughed awkwardly and apologetically as we tried to shuffle and arrange six bodies at a table meant for three. Like many of our meals in Cuba, this one was accompanied by the exchange of many stories. Ulisis’s wife shared a story that spoke to a kind of mythology about American life that seemed to have existed among the Cuban people at one time or another. She told me that as a child, she had this wild misconception about soda cans. At the time, anything that could be considered an American product or American merchandise was kept out of sight because it was illegal. She heard stories about soda cans but had never seen one. By word of mouth, she learned that when the small tab was flipped one would hear this “tkt sssssss“ sound and the soda would instantly become cold. One day she sat and watched the Greek tourists on are their boats in absolute awe. She would listen to them flipping the tabs; anticipating the strangely satisfying “tkt sssssss”. She couldn’t wrap her mind around this kind of technology and the lifestyle that came with it. I thought about how strange the circumstances between Cuba and the United States were that they could foster a kind of mythology about each place. These utopian or dystopian misconceptions were born out of the few limited forms of communication. As an island nation, Cuba is isolated geographically and this isolation is further amplified by its limited exchange of information. International phone calls can be costly for most Cuban citizens and public access to the internet was introduced only a year ago.
We spent the following two weeks in Limonar, a small town about an hour away from Matanzas. We occasionally visited Matanzas but found that the majority of Nick’s relatives on both his grandmother and grandfather’s side lived in Limonar. Nick’s cousin, Lazaro, offered us his home for the duration of our stay in Limonar. The following days were spent traveling around Limonar in just about any available means of transportation: by foot, bicycle, truck, motorcycle, and horse drawn carriage. Nick’s cousin Duniel was determined to have us meet every single one of Nick’s relatives on his grandmother’s side. She is one of nineteen siblings and all those siblings have had children who have had children who are now beginning to have children. Needless to say, we were on a tight schedule. At times, it was overwhelming to try and remember everyone’s names and their place on the family tree. We found ourselves swept up in stories of family, sacrifice, childhood, conflict, politics, culture, past and present. We ate home cooked Cuban meals like the very ones we were raised with in Miami. And it wouldn’t be a trip to Cuba if we hadn’t played a game or two of dominoes. None of these people were my biological family but they were more than kind and generous with their homes and their narratives. I felt as though I had connected with members of my own family and could identify with them on a cultural and personal level.
Unfortunately, I did not have adequate information about my grandparents remaining family in order to search for them during my time in Cuba. A part of me feels a sense of regret for not having found any of my family in Cuba, but a part of me understands it was the result of many circumstances beyond my control. I was raised in the same home as my grandparents. Although I have lived with them for the entirety of my life, we rarely ever spoke about Cuba or the people and things they left behind. My grandmother would show me a calendar with photos of Cuba’s beaches. She would hold the photos up to her lips and kiss them. She would run her hands against the photos as though she could feel something I couldn’t; her gold bracelets softly clinking in response. She would tell me how much she missed Cuba, but she always stressed how proud she was to be an American citizen. I remember the mini American flags she would plant on our lawn and in vases on her dresser. My grandfather’s sentiments were not ones of nostalgia but ones of anger and frustration. I don’t remember him ever talking about Cuba or perhaps I never asked. He did tell me one story about Cuba, and it was the one about how he met my grandmother and how they fell in love. In 1965, they left everything they had called home in pursuit of a better life and future for their two daughters. Their love of sixty-one years was the beginning of my family lineage as I know it.
Nicholas Fernandez and Natalia Blanco
BFA Sculpture 2016
The first half of our grant project is part of a much larger collaboration between Fundacion Amistad, The World Monument Fund, and Ennead to develop a “strategic vision” and advocacy program for el Vedado. Before leaving to Cuba, we attended several meetings with Fundacion Amistad and Ennead to develop preliminary steps and goals that would ultimately feed into a larger Planning Symposium in mid October.
El Vedado is a vital part of la Habana; what many consider to be “the capital of the capital”. Because el Vedado is not a primary tourist location, it lacks many of the necessary resources and funding to maintain its streets, architecture, housing, cultural centers, educational institutions, recreational and public spaces. The ultimate goal is to revitalize and activate what already exists in el Vedado and develop strategies for its preservation, future urbanism, and upward mobility.
Before any of these organizations can even begin to ideate and initate planning efforts, they need as much background information as possible. We were given the task of collecting said information through photo and video documentation, mapping and annotation, and recorded interviews with Vedado’s residents. Before arriving in Cuba, we worked with FA and Ennead to develop key themes that would serve to drive and guide our documentation and discussions. The key themes are as follows:
Transportation/Connectivity: Public transportation and mobility within the neighborhood and its connection to the rest of the city
Local Economics/Entrepreneurship: Established businesses, small business, and hotspots of economic activities
Open Areas/Public Space: Activated areas vs. Potential areas (parks, plazas, sidewalks, streets)
Institutional/Cultural Centers: Formal centers for arts and culture as well as informal or spontaneous gatherings of culture and community
Anchors: Key locations where several themes intersect
Underutilized Assets: Potential hubs or areas for growth
We were essentially working to get a general idea of how Vedado’s residents felt about each of these issues. We spent our first two weeks in Cuba collecting and organizning this information in order for it to be taken back to the U.S. to be utitlized by FA and Ennead. We focused on covering a specified region of el Vedado that was described as a “golden triangle” of sorts and eventually moved beyond that. Its perimeter was composed of three major streets: Avenida de los Presidentes (Calle G), La Rampa (Calle 23), and El Malecon. Because of Vedado’s gridded layout we were able to cover each street within the triangle, scanning the urban landscape, photographing and noting everything and anything from empty lots, to home-run businesses, active spaces and inactive ones.
It was challenging to prepare for our trip to Cuba because information about traveling and residing in Cuba is relatively limited and not easily found online; we relied heavily on word of mouth and problem solving. We went into our assignment with very little knowledge of the area and virtually no one to guide us other than the locals we encountered on a daily basis. Initially we were observers, but quickly found ourselves involved in many social interactions and gatherings.
We used Concepcion Otero’s book El Vedado, to cross reference maps and gather some general information about the area but found that most of our research and information was gained in conversation with Vedado’s residents. It was interesting to find that many of Vedado’s residents echoed each others thoughts and shared the same views on these particular issues.
Our interactions with locals were very casual and positive. We typically worked to develop somewhat of a relationship with a resident before requesting any sort of recorded interview. We were very much aware of our presence as outsiders and quickly noted that many residents were not comfortable with video footage during interviews and so we chose to only to use audio recordings or transcriptions. We made sure to avoid any topics that would encite discomfort or unease. Outside of our interviews, we found that most of our conversations with residents were actually highly political and opinionated. To our surprise, the Cuban people were extremely vocal and open about their personal thoughts on Cuba’s culture, economy, and policies.
In retrospect, our approach in terms of interacting with members of Vedado’s community was very generative and successful. We approached each interaction with sincerity and did not seek any immediate outcome from our exchanges with each indivdual. It was certainly a huge advantage to speak Spanish and at times we found ourselves acting as translators for FA. Even having Cuban accents seemed to encite a kind of excitement and curiosity among residents. In a matter of a week, we met a wide variety of locals that occuppied very different roles within thier community. We were able to discuss these issues with students, the owner of a small home run business, a fisherman, a professor, a photographer, the president of a Korean culture club, two prominent architects, a performer at a nightclub, a taxi driver, and a preist in addition to other residents. Most of the people we have met have been extremely helpful and generous with their thoughts on these issues as well as larger themes regarding Cuba’s past and present.
It has been quite difficult to navigate our available means of communication. It is expensive to make calls from Cuba to the US and somewhat more affordable to communicate via internet. However, we are required to purchase time cards for internet use and can only access the internet at designated wifi spots. The connection is often quite unreliable and sometimes even inaccessible. It has proven to be costly and difficult to connect to family and friends back in the States, as well as communicating with FA and posting to our blog. We cannot download any applications or access our RISD gmail accounts. We are also required to show identification each time we want to purchase an internet card.
Budgeting our available grant money was also somewhat of a challenge for the first week or so in Cuba. We have no access to our bank accounts and so we had no choice but to bring our funds in cash, which became somewhat unnerving. We then converted our US dollars to CUC and eventually CUP (National currency). In Cuba, there is a dual currency system, one form of currency is used by Cuban cicitzens and the other is used by tourists or non Cuban residents. The value of 1 CUC is nominally $1 USD. However, US dollars are exchanged with a 10% tax imposed by the Cuban government along with a 3% exchange fee, rendering the exchange effectively .87 CUC to $1 USD. Fortunately, we no longer have as many concerns about our budget and available funds thanks to the hospitality of many family relatives that have offered to house us, transport us, and even feed us throughout the course of our stay in Cuba.
Although they have been few and far between, we have had some relatively challenging interactions and experiences in Cuba. Because both of our families are composed of Cuban refugees, it is somewhat complicated to navigate certain conversations about the relationship between Cuba and the US. Fortunately, the majority of the people we have met are extremely opnionated and insightful and have fostered an environment in which we could openly discuss issues that one would consider to be highly controversial for the Cuban citizen. We sometimes noticed that although we initiated an interaction with someone, we were either ignored or looked at in a way that was not welcoming. But we have since learned that for many Cubans it used to be a very dangerous thing to interact with a tourist, especially an American tourist. We have also had one or two individuals express relatively negative ideas about life in the US or the American citizen. But we have had many other individuals step in and take the time to explain why those misconceptions and feelings remain among some of the Cuban people.
The background information we collected is currently being used by FA and Ennead to develop presentations and discussion formats for their work sessions and Planning Symposium in Havana. FA is currently working to recieve authorization to host the event from the Cuban governement. We have left la Habana and are now exploring Matanzas, Limonar, and Varadero in order to collect material for more personal work as part of our own artistic practice. Most of our current material is composed of photography and audio recordings.
After two years getting by on just groundwater, 2016 finally brought Nate Ray some surface water. Ray, who manages the feed growing operation at DeJager Dairy, remembers feeling palpably lighter when he heard that the Chowchilla water district had surface water to allocate. Without surface water, he’d been cornered into pumping more water than his wells could take. Now he’d finally be able to give the aquifer a break.
But the surface water came with a catch. In years past, surface water offered a respite from the high electricity cost of pumping. This year, the cost of surface water exceeded that of pumping. Choosing to use the surface water would come at a financial loss.
“This was a choice we had to make as farmers, ranchers, owners, land stewards.” Ray said.
Ray also had to make the choice as a father. Buy the surface water and he’d cut into profit margins, but keep pumping and he’d further jeopardizes his children’s access to the safety net groundwater has offered his generation.
Ray is one of a dozen growers I’ve interviewed as a Maharam Fellow this summer. In these conversations, I’ve sought out growers’ emotional experience of groundwater use, past, present and particularly looking forward to the future as California implements its first statewide groundwater regulation.To put the growers’ and ranchers’ stories into context, I’ve also interviewed a dozen scientists, regulators, industry representatives and environmental justice advocates.
In my first blog post, I wrote about my own experience entering this technically complex, politically contentious arena, and my qualms about doing justice to the stories I’ve heard. In this post, I take a stab at a lay of the land.
During times of drought in California, groundwater turns from a crutch into a lifeline, swelling from 40% of the state’s total consumption to as much as 60%. Today, after five years of too little rain, many critical basins are in overdraft–meaning that the rate of pumping exceeds the rate of replenishment–and thousands of agricultural and domestic wells have gone dry.
Groundwater invisibility and the drawn out pace of its depletion make it difficult to keep in the public attention. Powerful lobbying efforts against regulation from agricultural interest groups further deterred legislature from addressing the issue.
But the duration of the current drought has exposed the degree of our reliance and brought groundwater to a greater public stage. Lay people started to hear about it. Scientists who had been working on the issue for years in relative anonymity, started getting an audience. Growers like Ray weighed financial loss against further imperiling aquifers.
After running through a few budgets, Ray decided to take the surface water and bear the losses. He knows some of his neighbors made the opposite choice. Driving around the area, he sees their pumps running.
A wet five year old in navy swim trunks wanders into Ray’s office. Holden climbs onto Ray’s lap and leans his head against his dad’s chest.
“These aquifers that are underneath us, they don’t have property boundaries” Ray said. He shifts Holden’s weight, exposes a damp spot on his shirt from the child’s hair. “If we don’t somehow regulate ourselves, monitor ourselves, then we’re gonna pump ourselves dry and there won’t be nothing left for the next generation.”
California’s groundwater reckoning has led to a rethinking of one of the state’s most fiercely guarded assumptions about water ownership: that groundwater belongs to whomever owns the land above it.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), signed by Jerry Brown in 2014, is the first statewide law attempting to monitor and manage groundwater as the interconnect system it is. The legislation calls for the formation of regional Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) agencies across the state. Each will have to devise and implement plans to monitor and manage groundwater withdrawals in a way that achieves sustainability within a quarter century. With the June 2017 deadline to form GSAs nearly here; the most profound shift in California water rights in a century is underway.
A huge part of the burden will be on growers. Not only will they be the ones organizing the GSAs in many cases, they must now adjust to a new reality in which a resource that has formerly been theirs is not treated as something the government has the right to tell them how to handle. Its an incredibly big transition and it would be helpful to have public understanding and support.
But as the public comes to understand the magnitude of the state’s groundwater problem, those resisting regulation have increasingly come under fire. From an urban perch, it’s hard to understand why growers would want their representatives fighting groundwater regulation. Such a stand seems shortsighted at best and selfish at worst. Groundwater may have emerged from obscurity, but the choices facing agricultural groundwater users have remained largely invisible.
Ray is conflicted about SGMA. “As bad as you want to look at it from a land owner’s rights standpoint, there is some good to it” he said. “Right now it’s about 50-60% of growers who are really worried. When SGMA kicks in it will be 100%.”
What scares Ray is the way regulations will interact with what he perceives to be the ever shrinking share of surface water allocated to farmers. “Every year they take more and more water for environmental uses,” Ray said. “If you’re going to take away our surface water and our groundwater, then we don’t have a means to make a living.”
My apologies for the stretch of time since my third blog post. I ended my Maharam project, turned around, and promptly started the Pre-Orientation Service Experience (POSE) as a leader for the third time. Once that ended, I applied for another grant (I’ve graduated from the Maharam now) and started my final year in college. Needless to say, things have been busy. I am sad to see the Maharam end, but it turned out to be the perfect stepping stone to the next point in my growth as an artist, activist, and leader.
The last class; a bittersweet day. I had planned on doing one final art activity, paper marbling, because paper marbling produces very intricate colorful patterns and is fairly easy to do. But, instead, the women just wanted to finish up the projects they had started in the previous classes, especially the pillows. As it turned out, many of the women had previous experience embroidering, and had set out to make elaborate designs. Sadia designed a tree with blooming blue leaves, and Mariam embroidered a whole slew of utensils in her depiction of chef and his kitchen. Yomely is planning on keeping her pillow in her office at DIIRI.
So, the final class was spent embroidering, chatting, and henna-ing. I bought henna specifically for Soukaina, because she has used more than one class to draw spiraling designs on paper. She was delighted, and then proceeded to adorn every single person in the room. I myself received a henna sleeve, starting at the tip of my right shoulder and ending at the nail on my middle finger (and I received many compliments on it in the week following). The class also included questions about if the class was going to continue and if I was going to stay at DIIRI. Unfortunately, because I am choosing to spend my senior year focusing on my Apparel Design Thesis Collection, I will not be the one continuing the class. Fortunately, the class will be continued by a RISD student! More on that to come — one by one, the women finished up their work and turned them in to me, so we said our goodbyes.
The final step in the Maharam was the “Gifts of Diversity” exhibit. This exhibit was arranged by Brandon, my supervisor at DIIRI, and was held at the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. The women in my class submitted work to be part of this exhibit that also featured “local artists who represent a range of visible and nonvisible diversity”. That’s why they were all working so hard during the last class — because it was to be presented to the public! Janet, a student from Armenia, even brought in other work that she had done, like an acrylic painting of a sunset. Our table at the event was stocked to the brim. The event itself was very cool as well. I managed to snag about ten fellow POSE leaders from RISD to come along, and we all browsed the artwork and enjoyed the dance performances. It was a lovely way to end the project.
Since then, I’ve met with both Brandon, my supervisor, and Sagitta, my unofficial supervisor. Sagitta and I discussed how effective my project was and how it could continue in the future. She told me that she would be interested in having the class continue for the population of unaccompanied minors, which is unfortunately an ever-growing population at DIIRI. These minors are about 14-17 years old and oftentimes arrive in this country to meet family that they have never met before. Sagitta told me how hard it was to communicate with them at first, but once she gave them crayons and paper they were able to share what they needed. This class could be a crucial part of their resettlement process. Hearing this made my resolve to focus on my studio work waver, but I am very happy to hear that my model could feasibly continue and be adapted within DIIRI.
Brandon and I discussed my project continuing in the form of another fellowship out of RISD’s Center for Student Involvement (CSI) Office: the Leadership and Community Engagement (LACE) Fellowship. I am also involved in this program, as I practically live in the CSI offices, but I use my fellowship to intern at Sojourner House, a local domestic violence agency. DIIRI is a Community Partner with the CSI Office (specifically the Office of Community Service), which means that two RISD students will be stationed at DIIRI acting as liaisons between the two communities. These two RISD students also happen to be my friends and fellow Global Initiative members: Sophie, a sophomore in Architecture, and Paridhi, a junior in Illustration. They are responsible for a number of tasks, but are now also responsible for my project (sorry). I don’t want to impose this project on them, but I’m very adamant about the fact that it needs to be continued by a RISD student. It brings together the two communities in a way that is mutually beneficial. This is still yet to be finalized, but there is clearly a need for it — I mean, I even received a gold-embossed folder with this inside:
I could have used more reflection time after my project officially ended, but I had other community obligations calling me. Such is life. After a summer spent mostly with people not from my generation, coming back to school is a little startling. I notice a change in myself; I am more serious about my work and more realistic about my capabilities. This sounds sobering, and maybe it’s just senioritis talking, but I’m glad for it. This, coupled with my new and improved work schedule, will greatly benefit my Senior Thesis.
Speaking of my Senior Thesis, I have realized that my final collection perhaps will benefit the most from my Maharam. I speak about it a bit in my first blog post, but my summer at DIIRI and the IDPP have reminded me about my own identity. Although my internship was not directly related to my major, I think it spoke to my broader artistic practice in an interesting way. Because I was working with refugee and immigrant women who come from a variety of backgrounds and speak varying levels of English, I grew to depend more on visuals to express myself — “show, not tell”. Because I could no longer count on my voice to convey exactly what I mean, I had to focus on honing my art, body language, and hand motions to be as expressive as possible. It was, if you will, a returning to my roots as an artist.
Over the past year my Apparel work grew increasingly academic as I wrote long conceptual essays about how, exactly, my garment advocated for a certain issue within the realm of feminism. But in doing so, I drifted further away from my roots as an artist who makes visual products. I guess that it’s not that odd that I was tugged back into the arts by spending time outside of the art world, but I was not expecting this revelation. I of course did learn an incredible amount about effective service, flexibility, the realities of refugees in Providence, and so much more, but this lesson was the most striking. It comes at a crucial point in my career: when I decide how to spend my last year at RISD, what I do after graduation, and whether or not I will dabble in the governmental sector.
I’m not saying that I have the answers to those questions, but rather that I now have a more clear path to finding the solutions. I honestly could go on and on about what I’ve learned and how it changed me, but this blog post is getting a little long, and I bet your attention span is waning by now. I’ll end by thanking the wonderful people at DIIRI, RISD Career Services, and RISD CSI — without you, none of this would have been possible!
This is my last blog post; if you are interested in contacting me, please visit my website.
It was appropriate to watch the sunset from my window seat as I flew out of Japan. Two months in Okinawa feels like two days. Until now, my shortest stay on the beautiful island had been just over a year. To have such a short time to enjoy its bounty felt a little stifling, but I am thankful for every minute I was given!
Restrictions placed on marines by their command caused attendance dwindled during the summer. Because of this, their project fell behind and its completion looked bleak. Over the last two weeks, however, a couple of the marines and an airman were able to spend extra time catching up and completing the board. Both classes worked hard to finish their projects, and they look fantastic! It was a joy to work with each group, even amidst the frustration of red tape and language barriers. A valuable lesson to learn, however, is that every design solution must overcome its own set of unknown problems. And, what often seems like the death of an idea, is the birth of a better one.
Now that my portion of the fellowship is over, the program is in the hands of my supervisor and of the chaplain who participated in the adult class. The chaplain is planning to start a surfboard design program on the base where he works, as a way to mentor more young marines. My supervisor is looking at future design projects with high school students. He is also training his staff in Design Thinking for creative leadership. I am now back in the country scouring job boards for gainful employment (I’m open to suggestions). Meanwhile, I will continue developing the creative leadership curriculum for community development organizations and philanthropic companies. Design Thinking and creative leadership can be valuable tools to enable communities to design sustainable, indigenous solutions toward a better life. I am ever grateful to Maharam and RISD for such a rich opportunity to explore an idea and empower others to create!
One of the goals driving my work forward this summer was forming a dialogue between my own practice and the robotics lab. Doing this in an authentic way is no easy task given the esoteric nature of my artistic practice: the core problem I’m addressing is memorization, specifically concerning the infinite, non-repeating number π.
In conversations with my cooperating supervisor at the lab, Dr. Bill Smart, we touched on the idea that memorizing π is a means of trying to be more like a machine. There are significant tensions suggested by this idea. Am I making myself more machine-like, or creating a humanized version of π? Am I imitating the precision of a digital system, or is the process somehow machine-like? These questions might be posed as a kind of more literal and modest version of Warhol’s “I want to be a machine.” Bill and I spoke about means by which this might be represented through robotic movement and the idea that something is being conserved. This led to a work called Entropy Conservation.
In Entropy Conservation the randomness I generate by typing π is offset by the movements of a robot. I type π from memory into a laptop, which evaluates my progress and controls a PR2 robot to move with varying degrees of randomness. The more efficiently I recall π the simpler the movement of the arms, while slowness and inaccuracies lead to complexity. If the digits of π are considered random then, in a sense, entropy is conserved.
It was important to me that the robot was more than a means to an end, but an actor in the work roughly equal to me in presence. That presence creates space for questioning the process through which this “conservation” is accomplished. π and the robot are communicating through numerical representation (according to theorist Lev Manovitch this is a unifying “principle of new media”). The robot’s movements, while dependent on the digits, are being controlled by the human data I’m generating by recalling π from memory, and which it then interprets. But that data is limited.
Within the narrative of the work itself this implies a certain agency inherent in the robot. Societally the implications of this might be significant. For example, recent research by BF Malle suggests that people are more comfortable (in some contexts) seeing robots act in a utilitarian manner, which to my mind implies uncertainty about robot agency. With this in mind, the nature of the exchange of data between humans and robots deserves serious attention within the field of human-robot interaction.
To assist with Constant Entropy I developed πGame, a simple, modular command line tool for recording information and displaying feedback when someone is recalling π from memory. Since ROS uses independent Nodes, this can be used within different ROS projects to evaluate someone’s performance when recalling π and extracting data.
In keeping with my surroundings over the summer, I dedicated significant time to artistic research via experiments and short trials. Many of these involved simulation tools within ROS. At least one involved a somewhat novel control system: a Dance Dance Revolution pad. I created a simple program (that can be used with ROS to control robots) that allows a user to recalls the digits of π through dance. In its first iteration, though, the controller proved too unreliable to document.
In addition to this I continued strands of my own practice that had less to do with robotics. This included some painting as well as a series of drawings in which I “compiled” code by drawing it from memory. To keep up with my other work please feel free to visit my site.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of programs like the Maharam Fellowship for broadening the scope of an artist’s understanding and practice in one short summer. Concurrently, robotics labs (like this one) that value conceptual variety and input from traditionally separate fields are providing students with truly meaningful experiences. For me, this was an experience at once new to my practice and perfectly willing to be in dialogue with it. As such I can tell it will have a voice within my work for a long time to come.
My experience at the lab has come to a close. This post will provide a look back at the experience and the next will look at some documentation of my work from this summer.
Going right back to the premise of my experience, I’ve encountered several people (in the lab and outside of it) who seem unsure of why an artist would be interested in robotics. While digital media artists often work with robotic systems, this question is significant. The back and forth of digital/physical information is at its core a profound problem. Interacting with the physical world using digital media makes both sides richer. Digital systems become more complex (there are more sources of data), while robotics allows us to do things that we typically wouldn’t in the physical world, or it allows us to do them in new ways.
I found that an important component of understanding the lab was creating space for discourse between my own practice and the lab itself. This isn’t something that happened overnight. I naturally continued my artistic practice throughout my entire time there, but finding that link connecting the conceptual space of the lab and my work was significantly more involved. In part the work was comprised of teaching myself new languages (most notably, ROS and Python). But on another level it was a matter of observing and learning from the lab and the roboticists working there.
This gradual process is precisely the reason that the Maharam fellowship is so invaluable. A shorter or less rigorous experience wouldn’t have been able to provide me with the insight that this experience did. But, likewise, taking the approach of formal education wouldn’t have allowed me to freedom to connect the experience so naturally to my own practice.
I often thought of this experience as a three-part inquiry: I sought to better understand the culture of the lab, human-robot interaction, and the formal languages of robotics. The culture of the lab was surprising in its openness to and interest in the conceptual problems of robotics. Seeing ideas such as the agency of robot actors addressed from the perspective of fine art and a robotics lab is truly a rare opportunity. While I was largely teaching myself, the technical skills that I gained would have been next to impossible to glean so quickly working in a different environment. Stylistically there can be significant differences between artists and roboticists, and first hand experience is a fantastic catalyst. Lastly, my initial focus for the fellowship was what I called robot-society tension (more frequently referred to as human-robot interaction). Roboticists approach this problem with respect to the process of designing robotic systems, whereas artists may take a somewhat more all-over standpoint. Dialogues like that have given my experience this summer tremendous personal satisfaction.
Updates from my last post. I finally finished the fabrication of the new compressed earth block machine mould, which can produce interlocking blocks.
loaded the soil and started testing.
Becuase the block was still fragile at this stage, I made a pair of wooden aid for taking the fresh blocks out of the machine without damaging them.
Getting ready for constructing a demonstration wall.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the goal of the interlocking block is to construct a clean and neat wall, which does not expose any mortar gaps or need any extra plaster or paint on the outside. Furthermore, it saves the mason’s time for leveling and aligning the bricks during the constructing process.
The blocks are very easy to handle, and all the mortar is concealed inside the blocks.
As you can tell, the wall that is constructed by the new interlocking blocks looks much neater and tidier compared to the wall that is made by local fire-brick or the normal compressed earth block.
After finishing the interlocking block experiment, I just realized how little time I had left. Therefore, I started to set up an exhibition space for storing and demonstrating all the samples and materials I used for my experiments. All the samples are carefully labeled with detailed information so that if any student or teacher wants to repeat some of my experiments or make improvements, this space would be very helpful and convenient for them to start from where I left.
In the meantime, I also made a booklet that documents all my analyses, detailed drawings, experiments, instructions, and design process. I’m sure that with this document and the samples in the exhibition space, anyone can understand what I have done and what is the goal and value of this research.
I do understand that two months is too short for a research like this. I could not say that I finish this project. Instead, I would say that I completed the phase #1 of this project by setting up a resourceful foundation on such topic in Batticaloa. This foundation would definitely help me or anyone who has a similar interest in the future to develop this project.
You can view the digital booklet online:
Read more about my project here:
One more class (and blog post) to go! It’s been an exhausting and incredibly rewarding summer, but what I’ve accomplished in this short time only grazes the surface of what is possible… More on that in the last blog post— here’s what we’ve been up to in the meantime!
Class Eight was our first field trip! When I originally designed the curriculum back in June, there were a lot more field trips in the mix. Providence is known as “the Creative Capital”, and we certainly have many amazing local arts organizations. I think that introducing the women to these kinds of organizations will help them understand that we as a society do value the arts and consider them worthwhile. It also offers them the opportunity to visit some organizations that they might not encounter with DIIRI’s usual services, and be exposed to members of the Providence community that, again, they might not otherwise encounter with DIIRI. On top of all of that, it’s even better for the locals to see groups of women wearing hijabs and chattering in Arabic also enjoying what the community has to offer. Providence is already a fairly diverse place, and thanks to DIIRI it is still becoming more and more commonplace to encounter people from widely different cultures.
Since the start date of my classes kept getting pushed back, I unfortunately had less openings in the curriculum to go on field trips than I hoped. I really only had two days in my remaining classes that we could dedicate to leaving DIIRI, so I chose the Providence Children’s Museum and CityArts as the two places to visit. Since so many of the women in my class have children and because children’s museums are so wonderfully focused on making and playing, I thought that the women would really enjoy these unique places. I’d first encountered the Children’s Museum two years ago when I visited them leading a cohort of sixty RISD freshmen as part of the Pre-Orientation Service Experience program. It’s a really fun place to be, regardless of how old you are — it even has a huge green dragon perched on top of the building! There are rooms filled with both innocuous objects and crazy structures, and they are all used equally to simply play.
The mission of the Children’s Museum is “to inspire and celebrate learning through active play and exploration”. When I was arranging the trip, Jessica (Exhibit Director at the Museum) told me that they are all about “open-ended, self-directed, self-motivated play”. When I asked them to do an activity with the women, in the spirit of show-not-tell (which is turning out to be the mantra of my summer), she told me that they could not do that (see previous quote), but that we would go through the museum together so that they would understand their environment as one that they can touch and play in. Everything in the Museum is very hands-on, and I wanted them to go crazy and just play!
It didn’t quite happen like that…but they did still have a good time. They were all fairly reserved as a group, but they did play with some of the exhibits as long as it wasn’t too physically involved. That’s understandable; they were adults in a children’s museum and in an environment they likely haven’t experienced before. But playing with the exhibits together, including one that involved wiring electricity, engaged them and they took a lot of photos. Even that was cool — they probably broadcasted how crazy America is to their social media network, judging by the laughter that into posing for those photos. All in all, we had fun!
…went on without me! Class Nine was the second class that I had to miss to attend the Institute for Design and Public Policy (IDPP). I introduce it more in my previous blog post, but this was an amazing opportunity that I could not pass up. Unlike the last time, in which I simply canceled class, this time I made sure that it happened regardless. The guest teacher was my close friend Tommy (who is also in Apparel), and the regular teacher (me) was Sagitta (a case worker at DIIRI)! Because the women had already been introduced to apparel techniques with Maha and Coleen, Tommy contributed another one of his skills: embroidery. Class Nine was spent learning how to make a variety of embroidery stitches (for use on their pillows) and talking about the resettlement process. I have not yet talked to Sagitta about how the class went (so more on that soon), but Tommy told me that we had an unusually small attendance that day. So, I’m not quite sure how effective the class in my absence was, but that might have just been extraneous circumstances interfering!
On my end, I was having a great time reimagining civics in Rhode Island at the IDPP. I was working side-by-side with Rhode Islander’s hailing from places that ranged from the RI Department of Health to the Center for Women and Enterprise. We were all learning about the process of design-thinking and how to apply it to better a community — in this case, it was about how to motivate RI citizens to come together for the greater good. Basically, we were trying to repair the relationship between the people and their government. We did this by pinpointing exactly what strengths we had as a state, what was lacking, and what about our civics could use re-designing. We broke into teams of ten, and it culminated with us presenting to the guest critics our grand vision for the future of Rhode Island via choreography, role-playing, and persuasive speeches. Because I am already a designer, I am already familiar with how to design-think, but the lessons that I received from guest speakers offer new insight into my process. In starting to design my senior thesis collection, I am going to test some of the visual thinking that I was exposed to in the IDPP. As the week went on, it also became increasingly clear to me that artists and designers really do think and problem-solve differently, and that only reaffirms my hopes for my future. But never before have I worked with so many people older than me and in wildly different fields — and it was incredible (I have never asked so many questions about insurance or trustee boards before in my life). I am definitely glad that I had this opportunity, and I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in learning the power of design.
This time, the field trip was more successful. We visited CityArts, another organization in South Providence that provides “free professional art-based education and training to Providence youth in a fully developed community-based arts center that reflects, encourages, and promotes the rich ethnic diversity of Providence, our capital city”. Along with CityArts Program Coordinator Susana, I arranged for the women to work with two local artists decorating a wall in South Providence using ceramic relief tiles. We were invited to join the artists in making tiles to contribute to the mural, which will officially be on display in November. The art that we made at CityArts will be on view in Providence for a long time, and I think that is a wonderful way for the women to feel like a part of the community. The people at CityArts were also very eager to receive us, and I hope that DIIRI and CityArts will pursue this relationship in the future.
The women really enjoyed the process of kneading the clay and tracing designs into it. Some of the women made tiles of their hands, and some experimented with carving different shapes using the assorted tools on hand. The entire time we were there, the women and the artists talked about their respective cultures and what it is like resettling in a place like Providence. There was even a long discussion on hijabs! Everyone seemed to be really enjoying themselves, and I loved that this trip had a unique twist of “giving back”. They even learned a new artistic skill that I could not have taught them!
This Thursday is our last class. My final blog post will be about that class (which will involve henna and paper marbling) and to sum up everything that I’ve learned from the Maharam. Until then!