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.  



Announcement: Dr. Jeff Wilson (“Professor Dumpster”) to deliver lecture Friday, Sept. 26

Photo by Sarah Natsumi Moore

Photo by Sarah Natsumi Moore

Please join the Department of American Studies for a talk by Dr. Jeff Wilson, also known as Professor Dumpster, who has garnered widespread publicity in the past few weeks for an ongoing project – The Dumpster Project – for which he has been living in a 36-square foot dumpster. For “The Ultimate Conversation Box: A Dumpster,” Dr. Wilson will be describing how he links his academic research, teaching, and community activism with issues of sustainability as well as with his role as a dean at Huston-Tillotson University. Wilson will also give a “tour” of his dumpster/home.

Here’s what a recent piece in The Atlantic had to say about him:

Professor Wilson went to the dumpster not just because he wished to live deliberately, and not just to teach his students about the environmental impacts of day-to-day life, and not just to gradually transform the dumpster into “the most thoughtfully-designed, tiniest home ever constructed.” Wilson’s reasons are a tapestry of these things.


Not long ago, Wilson was nesting in a 2,500 square foot house. After going through a divorce (“nothing related to the dumpster,” he told me, unsolicited), he spun into the archetypal downsizing of a newly minted bachelor. He moved into a 500-square-foot apartment. Then he began selling clothes and furniture on Facebook for almost nothing. Now he says almost everything he owns is in his 36-square-foot dumpster, which is sanctioned and supported by the university as part of an ongoing sustainability-focused experiment called The Dumpster Project. “We could end up with a house under $10,000 that could be placed anywhere in the world,” Wilson said at the launch, “[fueled by] sunlight and surface water, and people could have a pretty good life.”


For Professor Dumpster, the undertaking is at once grand and diminutive, selfless and introspective, silly and gravely important, even dark. “We bring everything into the home these days,” Wilson said. “You don’t really need to leave the home for anything, even grocery shopping, anymore. What’s interesting about this is it’s really testing the limits of what you need in a home.”

“The big hypothesis we’re trying to test here is, can you have a pretty darn good life on much, much less?” He paused. “This is obviously an outlier experiment. But so far, I have, I’d say. A better life than I had before.”

The talk will take place Friday, September 26 at 4:30 in Huston-Tillotson University’s AL Auditorium at 900 Chicon Street.

This event is co-sponsored by the Department of American Studies, the Graduate Program in Community and Regional Planning, and Plan II Honors. We hope to see you there.

Undergrad Research: “Exhibiting Austin” Presentations This Tuesday


The amazing undergraduate research just keeps coming! Earlier this week we featured a project by Dr. Steve Hoelscher’s Intro to American Studies class, Postcards from Texas, a photo blog that considers the themes of the American Dream and mobility. Today we would like to invite you to attend a series of presentations by students in Dr. Cary Cordova’s “Exhibiting Austin” class that ruminate on Austin’s diverse history. The presentations will take place at the Austin History Center photo gallery (810 Guadalupe St.) on Tuesday, May 13, from 3:00 – 5:00pm.

Here is a description of the project from Dr. Cordova:

Students have spent the semester studying not just the history of Austin, but the collections of the Austin History Center.  Studying our local archive has inspired diverse and unique research projects: students have gathered oral histories, composed photo essays, generated economic studies, composed resource guides, and launched fundraiser projects.  Their research topics vary widely, but feature examinations in education, the arts, activism, food, transportation, and human trafficking, and include meaningful contributions to Mexican American history, Asian American history, Native American history, Czech history, and LGBTQ history.

Please join us to celebrate the hard work of these students and to share in their excavations of Austin histories.

Stories from Summer Vacation: Irene Garza on the (Incredible!) AMS Graduate Student Library

This story comes to us from Ph.D. student Irene Garza, who has worked with fellow grad student Brendan Gaughen to create the (incredible!) AMS library:

You could say my summer activities began several months ago when H.B. 2281, an Arizona law prohibiting Mexican American and ethnic studies programs in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) went into effect in January. In February, I helped to organize and participate in a national Read-In Day held at the University of Tejas campus, in solidarity with the No History is Illegal Campaign protesting 2281. Nationwide, students, teachers, community members, bookstore owners, freedom of speech advocates and so on, read aloud from the books banned from TUSD in accordance with 2281.  A significant number of UT-American Studies faculty and students participated, including Prof. Nhi Lieu who read aloud from Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror, Prof. Cary Cordova who recited from Jose Antonio Burciaga’s Drink Cultura, Prof. Naomi Paik who shared passages from political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal’s memoir, Live From Death Row and doctoral candidate Jaqueline Smith who gave a fierce performance of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Across the UT campus, students and faculty donated books to the Librotraficante Movement—a Houston based initiative to symbolically smuggle banned books back into Arizona to create “underground community libraries.”

Hearing my mentors and colleagues read from these texts, many of which have shaped their scholarship and pedagogical practices, inspired me to continue an informal project which I began last summer—the creation of an American Studies graduate student library. The idea of a student library grew from my desire to broaden the currents of intellectual exchange between graduate students about their diverse fields of interest. Currently, there are graduate students doing work on co-ops, mercenary violence, transnational adoption, the American prison system, Israeli “pinkwashing”, the national park system, urban gentrification, comic books, and the history of yoga (to name a few). As I felt on the day of the Read-In, the texts we share with each other, including our favorite “AMS Go-To” books, widen our perspectives, challenge us to think more critically about how our personal research interests intersect with others, and offer interesting points of conversation that can sharpen our insights about the field itself.

Of course, the library also has its practical uses, since most of the books will no doubt be accessed for coursework, Orals preparation, and as teaching resources for AI’s. Currently, the library is up to 250 books and is arranged both chronologically and thematically. Alongside canonical texts like Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land and Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden, are more contemporary AMS classics such as  Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera, Jose Esteban Munoz’s Disidentifications, Ned Blackhawk’s Violence Over the Land, and Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts. Since its inception, the AMS library project has been a collaborative one with Brendan Gaughen who took the lead on collecting and organizing the books and with the various graduate students who have donated from their personal collections.  Books, be they “contraband” or not, play a powerful role in my life, whether for activism or leisure. My hope is that the AMS library, much like the Librotraficante libraries, will motivate, challenge, and maybe even light some fires. The summer’s ending soon, so go get your reading on.

Just in case anyone has sticky fingers…

Grad Research: John Cline Reviews Harry Belafonte Memoir

We’ve all heard the hits from singer Harry Belafonte, from “Banana Boat Song” to “Jump in the Line.” But many fans of those songs and others are unaware that Belafonte – the King of Calypso – is also an active and vocal social activist. A new memoir by the singer hopes to shed light on those aspects of his political engagement, beyond the songs that became comedy centerpieces in Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice.

One of our department’s recent graduates, John Cline, has recently published a review of the memoir in the Los Angeles Review of books, where he parses the difficult genre from which the book emerges – the black entertainer’s autobiography – and considers the strange inattention to Belafonte’s Jamaican heritage. Here’s an excerpt:

Harry Belafonte’s My Song: A Memoir, written in collaboration with Michael Shnayerson and published late last year, is a peculiar offering within the genre of the black entertainer’s autobiography. Although totaling out at a doorstopper length of 450 pages, it isn’t until exactly halfway through that Belafonte gives a direct assessment of his own, very long career: “I wasn’t an artist who’d become an activist. I was an activist who’d become an artist.” This priority, though, is implicit at the outset. Rather than leading with an anecdote about “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” the tune for which he is perhaps best known, Belafonte chooses to recount the drama and danger of a trip with Sidney Poitier — a lifelong friend and fellow West Indian — when the two brought a bag full of cash to help fund Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee activists in Mississippi, a story replete with pursuit by Klansmen in pickup trucks and very real concerns about their accommodations being firebombed in the middle of the night.

Check the full piece out here.