Notre belle université

A few months ago, Baptiste Coulmont posted a sarcastically titled video called “our beautiful university” that testifies to the squalor and physical deterioration of a university campus in the south of France, Marseille or Toulouse I think. It’s essentially a youtube montage of photos of decrepit university spaces; the photos are also collected at Picasa.

decrepit radiator

At times, the mold approaches the complexity of mountaintop lichens, or perhaps it’s more like a spontaneous display of abstract art.

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Visual culture and institutional difference: Paris-8 & the Sorbonne

merry crisis

A sudden piece of English text inserted in the middle of an exhibition of political photographs at my field site. Paris-8. A charming metacommentary on global reality. Merry crisis!

If you wanted to describe this image in the most basic descriptive language you could say: this is a photo of a photo of a graffiti tag set among other photos, photos of people bloody in protests, of police in riot gear lines, of people running and throwing things, of people invisible in showers of light. See that flood of white in the photo immediately beneath Merry Crisis? With the figure askew and silhouetted? I have no idea what that is. But I do comprehend that this is a collage of leftist protest culture, aestheticized in the genre of an art photo exhibition, and further recontextualized in the form of political statement attached on the outside of Paris-8’s Bâtiment B2. Paris-8 is a university with an enormous visual text taped and sprayed across its walls. Campus buildings frequently have deteriorated walls, just from the sheer number of signs (affiches) that have been put up and torn up and torn down. It’s the kind of place where images, like this one, are not only compound visual objects (referencing other visual objects and visual genres), but are units in an overwhelming student reappropriation of academic space, a culture of defacement of the corridors that someone jealous of property rights might call vandalism with a political alibi.

This defacement has limits, though, being essentially restrained to surfaces within arm’s reach of the ground. The buildings themselves tell a different story.

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Beginning of fieldwork in France

I’m writing this from a small white room on the 9th story of an apartment building, comfortably spartan, the shelves still full of the shirts and camera equipment of the previous occupant, the bed sprawled out under a striped duvet. A squadron of black birds are patrolling outside in the chilly rain. This is only a month-long sublet, and the precariousness of not yet having a place to live in July is beginning to alarm me.

After not having written much in the blog for a couple of months, I’m hoping to start writing a lot more regularly now that I’m in Paris for my fieldwork. The universities are just in the middle of closing down for the year, having final exams and the like, so it’s a bit unclear what I will really be able to accomplish before the summer doldrums. I’ve gone to a couple of demonstrations against the government university reforms, and will probably blog about that in my next post. And I have some initial contacts and invitations to pursue. No doubt this is pretty much the typical situation for the start of a research project. (If anyone is curious about the details of the research plan, you can read my long research proposal.)

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Abandoned labs as recycled academic space

If you go into the Enrico Fermi Research Institute on campus, the center doors are made of stainless steel like an old diner. And if you go up the stairs and then down the creaky elevator, you emerge in a warren of white corridors and wooden doors. The basement is full of abandoned science labs, labs that have been empty for ten years maybe, with equipment scattered everywhere, old notebooks, chemical residue, dust, dirt, soot, stacked furniture, whining ventilation. Acids left over in gallon jugs of thick glass. A bottle of wine left as if it had been opened to celebrate the last experiment just before the whole place was summarily deserted. Dark trees shone through the high windows.



The university is planning to renovate it all, they say, but what with the economic crisis, that might not happen next year. So some of the space has been borrowed.

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The scholarly lion

scholar lion statue

This is the scholarly lion at columbia university. It cannot roar. It can’t charge. It can’t even move. It is only a statue.

One wonders, frankly, what kind of comment on scholarship is implicit in this puzzling object, with its ruffled main, its gnarled lips, its green face the color of sea-beaten algae or refrigerated mold or weathered bronze, its thick lips, its empty eyes, its stiffened limbs. Are scholars meant to be like lions, brave and heroic, ready to seize the truth in their jaws, to roar at lies, to stand guard before virtue and prestige? Or are scholars here represented as statues, statues of something that might once have been brave when it was alive and lithe, but that now is halted, appropriated and bronzed?

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Department of Photography + Surveillance

photography dept + surveillance

At NYU. This is a picture of an art gallery from the street. The street reflected in the background. Some random art in the bottom.

But really I was just tremendously entertained that the DEPARTMENT OF PHOTOGRAPHY & IMAGING stuck its name right next to a surveillance camera. I guess they are afraid someone might steal their images? Or at least they want to have images of people stealing their images? Or perhaps the security camera is actually part of the exhibit? The white of the camera body blends so nicely with with the white of the wall. It reminds me of a little robot that has stuck its iron fist through the sheetrock and is waving for attention.

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The university and skin

Wall and tree closeup

this is the university’s skin. at the university of illinois-chicago. some building on the south side of roosevelt road. the branches creeping up across the brick and flung in the sun while the wall is in shadow, the brick stained and blurred and colored, the brick covered by creeping vines, the vines dripping down as if the blood of the bricks were pouring out through the mortar, the snow settled into the vines like cowbirds nesting in places they didn’t build.

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Universities and dawn

Mirror lake at dawn

At sunrise, even the droll ornamental lakes of the university acquire a certain glimmer. The pond weeds become shadows. The shadows wash over the shores of the lake and hide them, which is much for the better, as this lake is populated by geese who have draped the banks with their droppings, each one about the size of a skinned baby carrot. They number in the thousands. Consequently, the mirrored sheen of this fake pond offers only a very incomplete simulation of a beautiful natural scene.

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Universities and graveyards

UConn Panorama and Graveyard

it’s summer in this picture. i was on top of a hill when i took this. i was 18. just before i left for college. the year 2000.

the rows of graves run down the hill to the high brick buildings. the silver dome of the basketball stadium rises like a silly saucer. the trees were the dark green of summer. it was probably hot out.

it’s a little eerie that the view of the university leads down out of a hill of graves. this is the university of connecticut; they have the same thing at cornell university too. a campus graveyard. just a place for the bodies to go when they’re done working, i guess. a convenience, just like the campus coffeeshop. why leave campus when all the amenities are close at hand?

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University and sky

If the campus has a certain relationship with the land, does it also have a relationship to the sky? Does academic space have an upper boundary or a top? Or does it stretch up into the academo-stratosphere (as my friend Jess Falcone puts it) or eventually out into the void where academic “stars” shine?

One of the ways universities organize their peaks is with built objects that rise higher than others, that rise for the sake of rising, because height is symbolically potent: a church, a gilded library cupola, a smokestack, a triplet of water towers, a triplet of flagpoles.

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Photos of a French university in the rain

I went to visit one of my possible fieldsites this summer, the University of Paris VIII Vincennes-St.-Denis, only to find it closed and locked for August vacations. I had expected it to be empty, but I didn’t realize they would lock all doors and shut all gates (aside from a maintenance guy or two wandering around). There was an odd contradiction between the leftist slogans and signs and the colorful student graffiti, and the security-laden architecture – security cameras, barbed wire and all.

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