What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Zoya Brumberg


As I admired a display case of 18th-century chastity belts, specula, butt plugs, and mysterious medical equipment, the proprietor of the antique shop in the tourism center of town inquired what I was doing in Taos. I told him that I was there for a research trip. Though he must have been in his 60s or 70s and living in the United States for quite some time, the antique store owner told me through his thick French accent that he too had received a PhD (in geography) when he was younger but decided that collecting antiques was much better. I asked the man what he thought of the Earthships located just outside of town; he spit and cursed and told me that “Michael Reynolds is a con artist. People in Taos should not be living in the ground! Why would you want to study him?” He did not seem to want an answer and continued on his tirade, then said “fuck you” as I left the shop, which he assured me was a traditional French way of saying “good luck.”

Taos is a surprisingly lush, mountainous area located in the northeast corner
of New Mexico. In the valley west of the Rio Grande gorge, a vast expanse of
sagebrush desert is home to hundreds of off-the- grid homes known as Earthships. Made of brightly tinted concrete adobe and decorated with recycled glass accents, the Earthships are built half underground, with the exposed façade covered in floor-to-ceiling greenhouse windows. “Earthship” is a trademarked term coined by architect Michael Reynolds, who invented the particular architectural forms of what were intended to solar-powered, off-the- grid homes with complex gray- and black-water systems, built in such a way as to regulate temperature without heating or air conditioning, in an aesthetic congruent with the surrounding landscape and the human body. Despite the hippie aims and aesthetics, the Earthship Biotecture headquarters in Taos is more of a gated community than a commune, speckled with independent homes of varying luxuries that share a water cistern, internet router, and hiking trails.


Michael Reynolds’  confidence in Earthship technology was not amenable to improvements or adjustments, which caused him to lose his architectural license for a number of years in the 1990s. The first Earthship designs were not all structurally sound, nor did they function the way they were supposed to—especially in more severe climates than Taos. Compacted dirt over tires cracked without more supple binding; homes overheated in the summer and froze during the winter; and solar panels were insufficient to establish energy independence for inhabitants of darker or rainier climates.

The mystical beliefs touted by Reynolds in his teachings, his adamance that Earthships are the answers to everything from the housing crisis to global warming to human spiritual alienation, and the profits that he earned from hocking technologies that had not passed the test of time, all point to Reynolds as a cult figure con artist. That said, the improved Earthships of today—at least in climates like Taos—function as they ought to and could potentially be used as prototypes for the housing problems posed by current economic and environmental conditions. Reynolds now uses the Earthship Biotecture Headquarters as an architectural school, a museum of Earthship technology, and a somewhat luxurious ecohotel.


I drove through the desert to find the museum at the headquarters–a prototype built in the Taos Earthship community to educate the public about Earthship technology—where I was also to check into my Earthship AirBnB. I had originally intended to stay in the modest “Hobbit House,” the first Earthship ever built in 1979, but as history might have predicted, the house was under construction, and my stay was upgraded to a much more recently-built, luxurious Earthship called “Phoenix.” One of the students of the Earthship Biotecture school gave me a guided tour of the house, which was much more exciting and demonstrative of the possibilities of Earthships than the educational model. He talked me through the ways that electricity, heated water, filtration, and even the internet service were optimized to preserve energy. All of the materials presented at the museum—Reynolds’ books, documentaries about the Earthships—were available in the AirBnB, making a visit to the museum unnecessary for anyone staying at one of the Earthships.

As a student of American Studies with a background in literature and architectural and art history, understanding the subtleties of the home’s eco technologies was mostly above my head. However I really appreciated learning about the physical construction and aesthetic decoration of the decadent Earthship to which I had serendipitously gained access from someone who had helped to build it. The interior of the home was sculpted cement abode, decorated with Gaudi-like art nouveau accents. The bedroom was an Oscar Wilde opium lounge, the quarters of an odalisque, with peachy-pink textured walls, backlit stained glass, Persian rugs, and Tiffany-esque lamps on either side of the bed; natural light spilled in from the glass doorway to the otherwise windowless room. The bathroom bridged the space between the interior cave and exterior greenhouse, painted aqua-green, speckled with glass bottles, the tub sculpted out of the wall itself; above it was the greenhouse ceiling with vines dangling over the upper edge. The living and dining rooms were full of plants that grew up from the floor, as though a jungle had been brought inside the home, circling a fireplace evoking a yonnic mouth that, with a flick of a switch, produced a waterfall from the filtered gray-water.


Perhaps the most magnificent feature of the Earthship’s architecture was the
greenhouse surrounding its exposed exterior. Tropical plants of all sorts—palm and fig and mandarin and banana trees, orchids, hanging vines—lined the walkway that stretched the distance of the interior garden. A second dining table was bookended by ponds, inhabited by koi fish and turtles. There were even cockatiels living in the greenhouse, flying freely as though it were an aviary. A second garden grew outside the greenhouse in an enclosed yard full of hardy desert plants, providing a home to a small group of egg-laying chickens. These plants and animals required constant care by Earthship Biotecture students and volunteers, and upon further research, it became clear to me that this kind of living home is not the sort of thing that most people could maintain. For all the effort and additional knowledge it requires, the reward is living in a house that sounds and smells and feels alive. The air is fresh and floral, combating the dryness of the desert. Stars are more visible through the ceilings of these Earthships than they are in most of the United States.

I left the next morning sobered by the knowledge that “Phoenix” is on the market for $1,500,000—not exactly the price tag you would expect based on the intents presented by Earthship technology—tempered with the unshakable urge to follow the footsteps of my Earthship caretaker and attend the Earthship workshops and build my own. Earthships are not the revolution Reynolds touts them to be, but they are a most appealing repose from the coldness and alienation of the world by whichwe are so often surrounded.


Conversation with Photographer Mark Klett: Tomorrow (9/14), 7 PM, HRC


Tomorrow from 7 to 8 P.M. in the Harry Ransom Center, photographer Mark Klett and curator Jessica S. McDonald will discuss Klett’s work photographing American landscapes since the 1970s.

“Since participating in the renowned “Rephotographic Survey Project” (1977–1979), Klett has investigated time, perception, and the history of photography in projects such as “Revealing Territory” (1982–2004), “Reconstructing the View” (2007–2010), and “Camino del Diablo” (2013–2015). Co-sponsored by the Department of American Studies.”

The Facebook page for the event can be found here:  http://budurl.com/5chz

Summer Slow Down: Making All-Night Art with Mystery Spot Books

In this third installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS doctoral student Emily Roehl recounts her experience creating time-based, activist art in Minneapolis as part of the Northern Spark arts festival this past June.

In June, I traveled to Minneapolis to work with Chad Rutter, my Mystery Spot Books collaborator, on our first foray into time-based art. On June 10, we took part in Northern Spark, an all-night arts festival that popped up along the Green Line of the Light Rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul. For our project, The Slow Down, we commandeered a road construction sign and displayed a series of messages from participants, who were encouraged to consider practical ways to live with less of what the construction sign represents – a culture fueled by petrochemicals. On the night of the festival, we asked people why they might want to live with less oil. Their reasons were programmed into the construction sign and displayed on an ever-changing loop from sundown to sunrise.  


Here are some of our favorite reasons collected during the night:

…because things should matter.

…because I like to see my city at the pace of a slow walk.

…because fear keeps us from considering new, more resilient possibilities.

…because I need a lot less than I think.

…because it’s not all about comfort.

…because oil fuels conflict.

…because the world is changing and so are we.

…because *this* is our heaven. 


Oil shapes our everyday lives. Cars are a large part of this, but so is our food system, the microfibers in our synthetic fabrics, and the personal products we apply to our bodies. From fast food to electronic devices to interstate highways, oil contributes to the speed of our lives. Rarely do we slow down and think through the everydayness of oil. By asking participants to slow down and extract a small part of their daily lives from oil, this project explored new ways of being at home in the world that do not rely on fossil fuels. 


Our work for Northern Spark will find its way back into our primary medium: the artist’s book. Building on our recent series of publications called the Energy Landscapes of St. Louis, we will publish a book inspired by the reasons to live with less oil we collected at Northern Spark. This will be the first publication in our Energy Landscapes of the Twin Cities series.  



“History, Labor, Life: The Prints of Jacob Lawrence”: at Warfield Center’s Christian -Green Gallery Until Dec. 9

J Lawrence

The Warfield Center’s Christian-Green Gallery is hosting an exhibition of one of the most influential 20th Century American artists, Jacob Lawrence.  Best known for his Migration Series (1941) depicting African American life during the Great Migrations of the early- to mid-20th Century, Lawrence was the first African American artist to have his art included in the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art.

The Warfield Center’s exhibition  “provides a comprehensive overview of Lawrence’s printmaking oeuvre, produced from 1963 to 2000.”   The exhibition is open to the public from noon to 5 P.M. Wednesday through Saturday and by appointment, at the Christian-Green Gallery located inside the Beauford H. Jester Center, 201 E. 21st Street.

Full details for the exhibition can be found here:  http://galleriesatut.org/event/history-labor-life-the-prints-of-jacob-lawrence/

LGBTQ Studies Program Inaugural Event: Justin Vivian Bond in Conversation

Tomorrow evening, faculty from UT-Austin’s new LGBTQ Studies Program will be hosting their inaugural event:  an evening with acclaimed performer, writer, visual artist, and recording artist Justin Vivian Bond.    Mx Bond will be in conversation with UT faculty Laura Gutierrez, Ann Cveckovitch, and Paul Soileu in the Glickman Conference Center (CLA 1.302 E) from 7 – 9 P.M.

justin vivian bond

From LGBTQ Studies:  “Mx Justin Vivian Bond is a trans-genre artist living in New York City.  As a performer both on and Off-Broadway, Mx Bond has received numerous accolades, winning an Obie (2001), a Bessie (2004), a Tony nomination (2007), the Ethyl Eichelberger Award (2007), The Peter Reed Foundaton Grant, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant for Artists.  V authored the Lambda Literary Award winning memoir TANGO: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels (The Feminist Press, 2011).

Films include John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006), Sunset Stories (2012), Imaginary Heroes (2004) and Fanci’s Persuasion (1995).  Solo exhibitions of JVB’s watercolors, sculptural installations and live art have been presented by Participant, Inc. (NYC, 2011, 2016), Art Market Provincetown (2014), and Vitrine (London, 2015).  Albums include Kiki and Herb: Do You Hear What We Hear?Kiki and Herb Will Die For You at Carnegie HallDendrophile, and Silver Wells.  For further info:  http://www.justinvivianbond.com/

Mx Bond will also be performing on Friday Sept 8 at the ND (502 Brushy Street).  For further info: “Rebecca Havemeyer Presents: Justin Vivian Bond!” https://www.facebook.com/events/108635016478691/ ”

Hope to see you there!


What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Gaila Sims

After finishing my first year of graduate school, I was most looking forward to relaxing, swimming, and reading for fun. I was able to do all three of those activities this summer, but I actually spent the majority of the summer working at Austin’s Asian American Resource Center as an instructor for their summer camps. The Asian American Resource Center (AARC) opened in September 2013 and serves Austin’s Asian American and Pacific Islander communities with programming, resources, and community spaces. Among the center’s many educational offerings is summer camp, which usually runs June-August, and includes a number of themed camps meant to teach kids about Asian and Asian American cultural traditions.


Photo Courtesy of the City of Austin Asian American Resource Center

The first of this summer’s camps was “Game Master,” where kids learned coding basics and about traditional Asian games, including Yut Nori, Mah Jong, and Tuju Tins. We also made our own mancala sets and played a lot of ping pong. The second of the summer’s camps was “Art and Mindfulness,” during which campers were taught methods of mindfulness and meditation, all stemming from Asian and Asian American cultural practices. We learned about zen gardens, about sand mandalas, and did a lot of yoga. After “Art and Mindfulness” came “Tall Tales and Traditions,” which focused on storytelling, theatre, and oral history. This camp was especially interesting for me, since I had not previously known a lot about Asian storytelling traditions. We taught the kids about Kamishibai, a form of Japanese street theatre, as well as the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic poem. The summer ended with “Asian Adoptee Camp,” which provided education and resources to adoptees, and allowed for community building among campers of various ages and from various cultural backgrounds. We talked about the history of Asian adoption in America, had great discussions about some of the challenges involved with being adoptees, and actually met adult Asian adoptees and got to learn about their experiences.

AARC Kids Yoga

Photo Courtesy of the City of Austin Asian American Resource Center

I was one of three instructors for the camp, and spent most of my time with some of the younger campers, ages 5-8. The kids were wonderful, and had such unique perspectives, and it was awesome to be able to learn from my fellow instructors, both of whom have backgrounds in education. It was great to be able to spend time doing work totally different than what I do during the semester—teaching younger kids, learning about cultural traditions different from the ones I study, and working in a community center environment instead of on a university campus. While working at summer camps has its challenges, it was really nice to be able to spend time with kids and engage my brain in different ways. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to do interesting and engaging work, and am looking forward to settling back into the semester, although I might see if some of my fellow graduate students are interested in playing some Mah Jong this semester, now that I finally know how to play.

Gaila Sims

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Dr. Steve Hoelscher and UT AMS in Konstanz

As is a semi-tradition, when UT AMS returns to campus for the fall, we ask our faculty and graduate students to report on their summer activities. First up is Dr. Steve Hoelscher who, along with several members of the AMS faculty and graduate student bodies, took a trip to Konstanz, Germany and participated in a transnational research workshop:

In late July 2017, the departments of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and Literaturwissenschaft (Anglistik/Amerikanistik) at University of Konstanz, Germany, cosponsored a transnational research workshop. The event was made possible by generous support from the University of Konstanz’s International Office , which provided funds to expand international cooperation (Internationalisierungsmittel), and from the Department of Literary and Media Studies. Hosted in Konstanz, a small university city known for its historic medieval core and its scenic location on Lake Constance (Bodensee) and the Rhine River, the workshop brought together graduate students and faculty to explore the relationship between visual culture and inequality.


Konstanz, Germany


Konstanz, Germany


The bicycle bridge over the Rhein in Konstanz


Students between classes, swimming in the Rhein


Lake Constance (Bodensee) at Konstanz

Figure 5

Konstanz street art by the German-based artist Tuk, who focuses on stenciling and site-specific paste-ups

For three days, the participants reflected on the role of different visual media—photographs, film, sculpture, architecture, painting, and more—to enable, resist, and document a vast range of inequalities that define the historic and contemporary worlds. The specific topics reflected both the interests of the participants, as well as the high degree to which inequality reverberates through the visual: Hollywood blockbuster movies that speak to an age’s social divisions; surveillance drones that assist opponents to environmental change and a never-ending war effort; the seemingly innocuous symbols that harden social divisions and make “natural” the products of cultural work; writers who deploy photographic imagery in both the written word and the illustrated book—these are just a few of the topics that received investigative attention and that spawned vigorous discussions. Jeffrey Geiger, Professor and Director of the Centre for Film and Screen Media at the University of Essex, UK, provided the keynote lecture entitled “Intimate Media: Engaging Inequality, the Body, and Gesture in Queer Documentary.” A full list of participants and sessions may be found at the conference website: https://conferences.la.utexas.edu/ut-konstanz-2017/

Figure 6

Presentation by Silvia Mergenthal (Konstanz): “‘These photographs are not an argument‘– or are they? The British Documentary Tradition in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and Woolf’s Three Guineas (1937/1938)”


Presentation by Janet Davis (Austin): “Jawsmania!: Making Historical Sense of American Inequality during the 1970s through the Optics of Film”


Presentation by Emily Roehl (Austin): “Indigenous Drone Media in the Mis-en-scène of Pipeline Protest”


Presentation by Monika Barget (Konstanz): “Inequality and the Visual Empowerment of Opposition Movements in the Eighteenth Century British Empire”


Presentation by Melanie Stengele (Konstanz): “J.F.K. Wanted to Send a Man to the Moon. Obama Wants to Send a Man to the Women’s Rest Room: Visual Politics and Transgender Rights in Contemporary North Carolina”

I have always found the spirited intellectual exchange and warm collegiality of thematically focused workshops to be the most rewarding conference experience, and our three days in Konstanz was no exception. A distinct culture is created, even in a short time, when diverse perspectives are brought to bear on a shared interest, when everybody attends all the events, and when conversations continue well after their initial presentation, often in interesting and surprising ways. Participants frequently bring partners and family members to such conferences, and their presence invariably adds another dimension to the conversations. Even colleagues who share a hallway at the same university find themselves exchanging research ideas that otherwise go unspoken.


Cary Cordova having a conversation with Boris Eichin, a dissident artist from Chile, who was restoring the mural he originally painted in 1977 on behalf of the struggles for democracy in Latin America


Randy Lewis and Monti Sigg


Janet Davis and Andrea Davis Osborne


Jennifer Feeley and Feliciano McKiernan-Cordova


Steve Hoelscher and Randy Lewis

Such events, at their best, extend beyond the conference venue and into the city. Especially enjoyable were three field excursions that connected to the themes of the workshop: a walk through the historic city core, with a focus on the Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) that serve as moving commemorations to victims of Nazi war crimes; a tour of the university campus, with its 1960s-era architecture and high-profile public art projects; and a visit to Fotomuseum and Fotostiftung Schweiz in Winterthur, Switzerland, where participants received a behind-the-scenes tour of a major photo archive and a curator’s tour of the current exhibit featuring Civil Rights photographer Danny Lyon, and current war photographer Dominic Nahr.


Stolperstein in Konstanz


Stolpersteine of one family in Konstanz. The children, Werner and Melanie Halpern, survive by escaping to the USA and Switzerland, but the parents, Sally and Elise Halpern, are murdered the same day in Auschwitz


Rooftop view of the Konstanz campus, with a view of the Bodensee and Mainau


The central courtyard of the Konstanz campus


The foyer glass ceiling of the Konstanz campus, designed by Otto Piene in 1970, with sun-lit flooring


The foyer glass ceiling of the Konstanz campus, designed by Otto Piene in 1970, with sun-lit flooring


Part of the “Kunst am Bau” initiative: Amerika


Teresa Gruber, Collection Coordinator of the Fotostiftung Schweiz, leading a tour of the photo archives


Monika Barget viewing the Danny Lyon exhibition


Dominic Nahr exhibition at the Fotostiftung Schweiz


Silvia Mergenthal


In Konstanz, we were fortunate to have two principal hosts who attended to all the details, with both good humor and organizational excellence, to make the event so successful, Prof. Dr. Silvia Mergenthal and Melanie Stengele, a Ph.D. candidate in the Fachbereich Literaturwissenschaft/Anglistik. We would also like to extend sincere thanks to chairs of the different sessions: Prof. Dr. Sven Reichardt, Prof. Dr. Karin Leonhard, Dr. Leila Whitley, Dr. Mirco Goepfert, and Dr. Emily Petermann. We are also grateful for the assistance of Stephanie Kaufman, in Austin, and of Juliane Richter, Lena Grecht, and Susanne Mueller in Konstanz.

Figure 27

Melanie Stengele


Participants of the Visual Culture and Inequality Workshop, from left to right: Jennifer Feeley, Feliciano McKiernan-Cordova, Karin Schulz, Randy Lewis, Monti Sigg, Monika Barget, Melanie Stengele, Emily Roehl, Janet Davis, Carrie Andersen, Andrea Davis Osborne, Cary Cordova, Silvia Mergenthal, Jeffrey Geiger, Steve Hoelscher (not pictured: Heike Schaefer and Orla Flock)

The connections between the Universities of Konstanz and Texas extend back into the 1970s, when Prof. Mergenthal, as an undergraduate, came to Austin and studied with Bob Crunden and Américo Paredes in the Department of American Studies. We certainly hope to build on the success of the Visual Culture and Inequality workshop to extend that transnational connection.