Student Spotlight - Ben Ogrodnik

2018-19: Ben Ogrodnik is a PhD candidate in the History of Art and Architecture Department whose research focuses on contemporary film. He currently holds a Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. In 2017, Ben was a member of the first cohort of Public Humanities Fellows and collaborated with the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. To see how Ben merged his research methods with public outreach, read below.

Update: Dr. Ogrodnik now serves as Lecturer in Cinema, Binghamton University.

What was the internship you held as a Public Humanities Fellow?

As a Public Humanities Fellow from its pilot year, I worked closely with Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST), a renowned community & performing arts organization based in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For my internship work, I ended up wearing many different hats, but my principal role was to act as a digital archivist, in order to help KST tell the amazing story of its 10 years of innovative performing arts programming. Thinking as an archivist, and drawing on my extensive training in digital-humanist methods, I decided to tell this story not with words, but by digitizing and visualizing many different artifacts, documents, photos, artist interviews and videos culled from their archive, and then making these archival materials accessible to the general public online. The work culminated in “The Movement Atlas,” an interactive visual timeline of KST arts programming that allows users to explore multiple streams of dance, theatre, and film programming backward and forward in time. The timeline form makes history “move” and come alive, acting on our brains and bodies with a powerful immediacy, just as dance choreography has the power to activate our bodies in/across space and time. Through this hands-on, public-facing project, I networked not only with the brilliant minds and curatorial team at KST, but also a range of international dancers, local artists and curators, and freelance writers. KST continues to be a vibrant meeting ground for the creative class and other diverse social groups, in Pittsburgh and beyond. I feel very fortunate to have been able to witness, refine, and spread their message, and work under Janera Solomon, KST’s executive director, who provides invaluable service to the arts.

How do you engage differently with your discipline as a result of the internship? And has this internship helped advance your longer-term career goals?

The internship was a humbling experience in many ways. It taught me to think about knowledge production and knowledge-sharing more expansively. In order to achieve my goals, and help KST tell its story, I had to move beyond the powerful (but narrow) toolkit of academic writing and publishing, which is the traditional domain of academic work. The reality I faced was that, the East Liberty public that uses and benefits from the Theater does not have the time nor frankly the interest/patience to merely “read” about the history of this organization; instead, they want to feel the past, and use the past in ways that are compelling, timely, relevant, and accessible to them. Fortunately I have long been passionate about alternative forms of learning, doing, and being that involves all the senses. (Much of the research I do involves writing about artists whose work activates our sensorium.) And so, right away, I decided to tap into my nontraditional training that deals in moving-images, visual creativity, embodiment, and alternative forms of communication. In essence, I had to find the right “medium” for an organization that traffics primarily in images, moving bodies, musical performance, and theatrical sights and sounds. In the end, I found that the format of the timeline combined all these senses/media, and best suited the needs of the staff and the local audience of KST.

Shifting gears to the impact that this experience has had on my disciplinary orientation as an art historian. Well, this internship helped me think laterally. It made me think hard about material resources, and how scholarship can and should be directed toward impacting a real-world community. Working at a theater and encountering different people everyday made me more empathetic to artists, choreographers and curators who have to tell stories through nonlinguistic means. I have more respect for these creatives, because their work is very daunting; but the rewards (when it works!) are so very great. It also made me realize that humanists should pay more attention, more respect to organizations that exist in their own backyard. Pittsburgh is a world-class destination for creative art and visual culture. We, at Pitt, should be doing more to develop and maintain stronger ties (social, intellectual, and financial) toward developing partnerships with local arts organizations. They can teach us so much.

How do you build mentoring networks that support your academic and broader professional development?

Mentors exist all around us, but we have to go out and find them. For me, mentoring is a verb; it is something special that occurs in specific situations, events, and relations of doing. It is unpredictable. Mentoring comes from the strangest places, but as a graduate student, I have learned to be open to mentoring-on-the-fly. I have worked hard to build close ties with individuals whose work I respect and admire, professionals who have powerful knowledge or experiences that lend significance and credibility to the work I seek to do in my life. These individuals work in different departments, they even serve on my dissertation committee—which is fairly obvious when we think of mentoring in academia. However, I have found just as many mentors outside of Pitt’s academic units. I have mentors at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art, Pittsburgh Filmmakers (now defunct), and Kelly Strayhorn Theater. I have made significant mentoring relationships with archivists at Carnegie Museum of Art, Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, and the Archives Services Center. Each person has something to offer me; I’ve built this broad network because I value their professional capacities and personalities. Plus, I enjoy being social and being around these people. Creating a network of support becomes easy with time.

What are your career aspirations, and have these changed since you entered your doctoral program?

My career aspirations are quite broad. On the one hand, I still want to work at a university. This is a goal I’ve had since I entered my program, because the profession of the research- or teaching-based academic provides a great deal of flexibility with one’s time and interests. It is extremely satisfying work. However, as the past decade has shown us, the modern university is becoming increasingly unequal. The job market for academics is very bleak, the working conditions are getting worse, and under the present political situation, the value of research and educational attainment are becoming elusive, inaccessible to the public, students, and staff. So, on the other hand, I now would like to work in an organization that directly serves communities, but with an ability to work academically with library research, publish my writings, and so on. In other words, I would like to forge a hybrid career – academic curator, perhaps- as this would bring together the best aspects of public institutions, arts institutions and the university, but it is unclear to me that I have enough experience or training, at this stage, to accomplish that goal.

How do you frame your disciplinary expertise and doctoral training for non-specialist and for non-academic audiences?

To be honest, the work I’ve done spans academic publishing and research, film curating, event-making, community archiving, teaching, digital publishing, and many, many other forms of knowledge-production. This diverse work is ill-suited by the label “academic.” My work is both academic and extra-academic, even though I consider all of it to be part of the same repertory of skills, capacities and relationships. I am a hybrid academic, a public humanist. I find that whenever I attempt to frame this complexity for different audiences, it is confusing to define the work I am doing. Instead, I like to tell stories about the organizations I’ve worked for, or about the individuals and artists that I write research on. Sometimes I tell them I am an archivist, writer, and/or a curator, each of which is not all-inclusive, but has more immediate effect than “academic,” and is somewhat more descriptive and accurate (if aspirational). Framing this experience in digestible ways is not realistic.

Thank you, Ben, for sharing your expertise with us!