Designing “Rhetoric of Space and Place in Western PA: Generating Scholarship with Place” and Thinking about Infrastructure for Engaged Scholarship

This summer I was grateful to have the support of Humanities Engage's Summer Stipend for Curricular Innovation to spend time thinking about how to take my teaching on the rhetoric of space and place, which already relies on conversations in, about, and with practitioners engaged in place-based work, and frame it to address public humanities projects. Among other work, it involved having conversations with partners about the kinds of research/public artwork they would wish to do supported by Pitt researchers, while exploring public storytelling with a social liberation/social justice focus.

I was drawn to the opportunity because my own work has increasingly been about engaged practice, not just writing about public art and urban policy in transnational contexts but helping create experiences, events, projects, and conversations with artists between diverse practitioners and across borders and genres. I’ve found that this work, which often involves questions I had not thought about as much early on in my academic career, deeply influenced my writing and thinking about visual culture and visual theory. Like anything, it involves challenging questions of power and resources that I also hope we will explore throughout the course and as a community at Pitt.

I first became drawn to collaborative work with artists due to issues of accountability. As we know, academic books can but do not always reach massive audiences and I wanted my work to create some tangible benefit for some of the interlocutors (largely style writers, aerosol art practitioners and muralists) who have been so generous with their insight and time. My ethnographic training happened in Dr. D. Soyini Madison’s class, and reflexivity and ethical accountability were touchstones. My research has long been about the use of aerosol art in “grey areas” of permission, and about the persistence of inaccurate and dangerous urban policy and stereotypes about graffiti - “broken windows theory” being a prime example. So, the goal was to bring practitioners who are experts and philosophers of their own experiences into the conversation. I first got to do this in 2013-2014 at the end of grad school, in a fun collaboration designed between myself and circus artist Polly Solomon, which we called Urban Acrobatics. We wanted to see what would happen if we discussed shared aesthetics, dynamics, and institutional challenges facing graffiti and circus art. This happened through public talks and youth workshops in New York and Chicago, but also performances in both places where youth, writers, and circus artists created live works of art together. In New York, we had a performance at the Jumel Mansion grounds (Martha Washington’s house), workshops at Word Up Bookstore, and a conference at Northern Manhattan Art Association in Washington Heights. In Chicago, the workshops and the performance were at Alternatives in Uptown, with a conference at the Evanston Art Center. A persisting thank you to Flash, Goons, Feegz, E67 and Clark, Werm One, Andy Bellomo, Melon, Chriselle T., Paris, Joanna C., and others for their participation. Polly and I drew on our networks of practitioners to create these events and the outcomes were more a set of relationships and skills than a concrete publication (at this point!). However, it was a small grant, and we could not pay participants, an issue I wanted to rectify in future work.  I used blogging as a key documentation method for this and future and ongoing projects.

When I came to Pitt, with more institutional resources, in a city full of grey walls with a particularly retrograde and draconian policy about graffiti, I hoped to continue this work. I was lucky to meet my collaborators, Oreen Cohen, Shane Pilster and Max Gonzales who have expertise in youth education and art program design, graffiti practice and education, and curation and muralism. They are connected to a wealth of local and national networks and bring a ton of knowledge, passion, and talent to the work that we do. We founded HCUAP, Hemispheric Conversations Urban Art Project in 2016, and since then have had over 20 youth workshops, 20+ public talks, about eight international art residencies (artists from Chicago, Mexico and Argentina to date) and have produced several murals, some semi-permanent and some ephemeral. We seek to pay artists for their work and provide networking opportunities and support whenever possible. Some of our goals are about destigmatizing graffiti and educating diverse publics about the richness of the culture and the role it has served in expanding the worlds of practitioners, amplifying youth voice, and supporting cross-cultural education and collaboration across borders. Beyond the talks and murals and workshops, we are starting to develop curricular material for youth.

My work with HCUAP has been transformative for my teaching, mentoring and scholarship. We work with Rivers of Steel, the Vanka Society, Artist Image Resource, Millvale Community Library, Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh Teen Labs, Boom Concepts and many other amazing local organizations in collaborating in the making of art, public dialogue, and educational experiences. As such, I am learning to be attuned to the different needs and objectives of multiple organizations. The research skill sets that I have developed as a humanist are important. Including a critical eye towards enduring issues of social inequality and urban development and the uses and misuses of public art; the ability to narrate and interpret phenomena through prose; and of course, grant writing, but I’m continually humbled by the wealth of knowledge and experience and interrelational networks that partners have and am hoping for ways to include that in my pedagogy.

So, “Rhetoric of Space and Place in Western PA: Generating Scholarship with Place” is about that. The course introduces students to the work of rhetorical inquiry about and with spaces and places, with an attention to modes of production that are public-facing and based in community partnerships. We will be reading some canonical and emerging theory on humanist spatial inquiry while pairing it with site visits, collaborative documentation, and experimental writing (descriptions, blog posts, digital gallery exhibitions). Students will be invited to explore the manifold ways they can work as scholars in and of space. Some guiding questions for the course include:

  • How do we write with and about space and place?
  • How do we approach the ethics and pragmatics of collaborative writing about place?

The first two thirds of the course are preparatory, and will involve exploring core conceptual frames, methodological practices, and a series of case studies about place, along with some site visits and guest visits. The last week of every section turns the classroom into a research lab about place-based stories where students will offer preliminary designs and writing samples around public-facing, place-based research projects. I have approached a few organizations/collectives with whom I have ongoing collaborative relationships about their interest in working with Pitt students for such public archive building, largely in the context of developing potential grant proposals. As a class, we will decide if we would like to pursue a project focused on a single organization, with different teams of students approaching different facets of the organization, or a theme that connects a network of organizations in the region. Instead of being bound to a seminar paper, the outcomes can also include samples like website outline, podcast pitch/outline, grant proposal, tour proposal, and blog post as modes of research communication.

Given the constraints of time and the semester this work is intended to be preliminary and experimental but will provide students with experiences and points of contact necessary to start to develop those relationships into the future while also being honest about the kinds of infrastructure, relationship building, and time needed for such projects. For example, the Urban Acrobatics project could come together relatively quickly because my collaborator and I knew each other for decades, and I had just finished dissertation research so the network of writers that I knew was vibrant and recent. Also, my parents ran a not-for-profit theatre company in Northern Manhattan and could make suggestions about sites and make connections (to NoMAA, who suggested Word Up and Jumel) and my late mother ran the sound booth. Polly’s dad’s partner’s kid ran a graffiti program and was able to donate used paint for performances. I say that to say that it is crucial to be real about infrastructure, power, and privilege for public engagement projects and to support students with the time and resources necessary to carefully and reflexively build partnerships. For most of the work I’ve done at least two to three years of relationship building had to happen before any particular collaborative project could occur. This raises important questions about the need to think about funding parameters in light of this fact.

My hope is that this course will provide an open space for students to experiment with multiple outcomes for research work while providing a solid survey of qualitative place-based methodology that they can take forward into their own work.

Syllabus for Rhetoric of Space and Place in Western PA: Generating Scholarship with Place (PDF)

Caitlin Bruce
Associate Professor, Department of Communication
September 2021
Learn about all the courses faculty developed with Faculty Summer Stipends for Curricular Innovation.