A Rare Glimpse into a New Field and Old Histories

My name is Eve Barden, I am a teaching fellow in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and a second-year Ph.D. student in the Film and Media Studies program. This summer during my immersive internship with Monument Lab, a non-profit public art research organization located in Philadelphia, PA, I got a chance to get a rare glimpse inside the workings of a humanities-focused organization outside of academia and to utilize my skills in video production and research.

I was a full member of the Monument Lab team: I participated in the weekly Zoom meetings, was added to the team’s Slack channel, worked on production and research projects, and wrote future project proposals for the organization. To start with, one important takeaway from this experience is that unlike academic research and coursework, the workflow of an organization like Monument Lab can be fluid, adaptive, and at times non-regimented. The skills that would be most valuable in a similar high-speed work situation would be self-reliance and the ability to work independently without guidance, and I got a chance to practice some of these skills throughout the time I spent with Monument Lab.

My initial project assignments as an intern included a weekly collaboration with Dr. Patricia Eunji Kim (Assistant Professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study) on her multi-media public history platform called Queens Who Rule (dedicated to under-represented royal women in history), in addition to researching and inventorying public artworks for one of the lab’s databases. However, per recent political and social developments in the country, current events demanded a change in the focus topics for my assignments. Instead of developing an archive of public artworks in the United States from 2010-2020, I was tasked to produce an archive consisting of instances of protest and demonstration at or about monuments. This research led me to an ever-mounting flow of data concerning varied burning issues outside of the scope of my scholarly expertise: violent protests agitating for the removal (or not) of Civil War statues, police brutality, protests of indigenous Americans against the vestiges of the American colonial past like Junipero Serra and Christopher Columbus monuments, and the rise of armed radical militias around the country. I had to learn to adapt my research and data-organizing strategies quickly. This changed my whole outlook on the work of an organization like Monument Lab, whose workings are usually hidden from public view but are contributing to our cultural discourse. The scope of the Queens Who Rule project changed as well. I have produced two educational five-minute videos intended for the general public (and posted on social media channels like YouTube) in collaboration with Dr. Kim titled Remembering Queen Mary Thomas and Her Monument on Copenhagen and When It’s Not Okay to Remove a Statue, both addressing current events and their connection to past histories of slavery and violent colonialism. The first video is dedicated to an enslaved woman on the Caribbean island of St. Croix (former Danish colony), who was one of the leaders of a labor uprising, and the other is dedicated to a statue of an unnamed “comfort woman,” a symbol representing sex-slaves (the majority being Korean) trafficked by the Japanese colonial empire in the 20th century. Japan has not fully admitted to this sex-trafficking, and there have been multiple instances of vandalism and removal of “comfort women” statues (usually referred to as Statues of Peace) around the world.

During the production of these videos, I had to adapt the creative strategies I normally would use in video art production and art film (including avant-Garde documentary practices) that are usually employed with academics and specialists in mind. For this situation, I was creating attractive and entertaining vehicles containing bits of information that have the potential to provide a casual observer with crucial and enlightening cultural and historical facts that would not be otherwise accessible to them. In other words, I, as a part of humanities academia, was making tangible efforts in the real world that could have dramatic ripple effects in this current moment rife with insecurity and misinformation.

Adapting production strategies to accommodate the flow of my research process is something I anticipate doing as I start the preliminary work into the potential dissertation topics. Currently, the topics I am researching include transmedial approaches to visual analysis identifying material evidence of the uncanny being present in stop-frame animated films within the paradigm of Metz’s apparatus theory and Lacan’s psychoanalytic ego-related concepts of alienation/identification. The goal of this research is to investigate how certain literary aesthetics lend themselves to particular formal practices and choices in filmmaking, such as how Gogolian uncanny aesthetics found their expression in stop-motion animated adaptations created in the Soviet Union from the early 20s up to the late 80s. My long-term academic objective is to develop these projects into an alternative dissertation taking the form of a stand-alone educational documentary film or a series of documentary shorts as dissertation chapters. I believe that the practical production experience I have gained while working on the Monument Lab projects was an asset to my dissertation goals and my overall career trajectory post-graduation. This opportunity to be a part of a fast-paced humanities-centric organization will make me a more versatile candidate in the job market, having not only observed but having actively participated as a full staff member. 

Having completed this challenging and fascinating summer with the lab, I do have a piece of advice for a future immersive intern within the Humanities Engage initiative: be ready to adjust your expectations, be ready to face multiple challenges that are really your opportunities to grow and adapt, be ready to work and think fast, and most importantly be ready to step outside of your comfort zone. It takes strength to work under demanding conditions in the ever-changing landscape of non-profit public outreach, but it is a most fulfilling challenge.

Eve Barden
Slavic Languages and Literatures, Film and Media Studies Program
October 14, 2020

Learn about all the Summer 2020 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.