Introducing Nicole Scalissi: sixth-year PhD Candidate in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture. A contemporary art historian focused on the intersection of performance, violence, and identity, she has served as the Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education and in 2018/19 was a member of the "Humanities Careers" Planning Committee (NEH NextGen PhD Planning Grant).
Update: Dr. Nicole Scalissi now serves as Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art History, UNC Greenboro.
Read more about her fascinating work and great career advice, below!
Explain the area and the importance of your research.
At the broadest level, my work addresses the tension between art and life, which has a long genealogy throughout the history of art, and I question why and how artists seize upon this tension now. I am an historian of Contemporary art and my research focuses on artists working in the United States who, during the 1970s and beyond, stage scenes of violence against marginalized communities with which the artists themselves identify in order to call attention to the prevalence of violence disproportionately committed against women and people of color at a broader societal level. My research theorizes a traumatic identity unique to marginalized communities in the US, a condition characterized by the pervasive feeling that you are never far from being victimized on the basis of your (real or perceived) racialized, ethnic or gendered identity. Artists—including Ana Mendieta, the collective Asco, and Shaun Leonardo—have given form to this lived condition of women, Latinx, and Black/African American citizens through their embodied performances. Their work conveys this condition to viewers who, by perception or statistics, live safely outside of this experience. Using surprise encounter and realistic staging or otherwise emphatic conjurings of violence, these artworks deliberately draw on a history of crime scene photography, familiar news stories, as well as an emerging culture of police body-cams and amateur eyewitness video. Implicating viewers as witnesses, perpetrators, and/or victims in scenes of violence against bodies of color, these scenes activate feelings of being equally close to the type of brutality in question as a means to impact upon the viewer’s feelings about actual violence. I engage with the broader visual culture of commercial film and news media, both of which have shown increasingly graphic representations of violence to wider audiences since the late 1960s. Conversations about representations of violence, especially as they intersect with ethnicity, race, and gender, are urgent in our present US context of an increasingly divided electorate, challenges to citizenship and belonging, recurring live-streamed fatal encounters with police, and renewed high-profile protests against racial inequality in the American criminal justice and immigration systems.
What was it like to be the Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education?
That was a phenomenal and challenging experience. My job was to assist the Academic Curator in developing a rigorous and supportive program for undergraduate interns and formalize relationships with our institutional partners in order to produce collaborative, public-facing research for our region. I was able to work closely with experienced faculty, museum professionals across departments, archivists and tour guides at a National Heritage site, and many amazing and motivated Museum Studies undergraduates. I relied on my experience as a hiring manager in my pre-grad school life and translated that experience into education and museum environments with the help of my faculty mentor—then I taught students how to think about their own experiences in that way to create their own professional narrative. So much of this job was finding out what was driving the student, the curator, the institution, etc, and find ways to connect them with the right partner. That was the most exciting part, but it was a lot of work – it meant learning how to see a very big picture at all times, and think of how individuals contribute to that big picture, while focusing very narrowly on individual skills and goals. It also meant a lot of very quick thinking, re-framing, and following up.
I loved being ‘at the table’ literally, getting to see how decisions are made by museum leadership (in this case, the table was Andrew Carnegie’s boardroom table at the Heinz History Center—seriously, I got to see some amazing things behind the scenes); talking to archivists in small, community-sourced collections about their challenges and joining them in their hands-on hard work; and seeing curators of different types and sizes of collections solve problems together – but, the best part was working with the undergraduate students and learning about all the amazing things they have done, seeing how they approach museums from their home disciplines, and the goals they have. It was very meaningful to help them see how to externalize their experiences as useful skills, and to support them in their first steps toward professionalization.
How do you engage differently with your discipline as a result of your work as the fellow? And has it helped advance your longer-term career goals?
I definitely think about what I do in my research and teaching differently – it has given me an undergraduate-first mentality. It certainly made me take on more mentorship experiences in my department and in the Honors College. After having piloted a research project specific to Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh, I have started to think about my own research in terms of how could this become a useful experience for an undergrad? I think much more about transferable skills and tangible products for students, and now I have more skills to make that happen. And because the experience was about how museums operate on a practical level, I teach about collecting much less abstractly. For instance, in the first class I taught after being Fellow, I was already talking to students about our local institutions in a different way and talking up internships, something that I had never done before. One Studio Art student, out of ten, was seriously interested and we worked together to revise her resume and practice for an interview; she became an intern at Bunker Projects. It was perfect for her since she was interested in performance and installation art, which Pitt does not regularly offer, and Bunker is one of very few venues in the area that specializes in these media. I was able to help because I had a greater familiarity with local institutions as well as with how to show to Bunker how undergraduates can immediately contribute to and learn from institutions.
For my long-term goals, this experience gave me an awareness of how museums and archives operate in terms of departments, planning and timelines, gaps in labor at institutions big and small. This information has helped me develop relationships with professionals in Pittsburgh, and also has helped me see where and how I would fit into various kinds of institutions.
How do you build mentoring networks that support your academic and broader professional development?
Being the Mellon fellow meant I had to speak up, move fast, meet people and learn about them and what drives them quickly - learn how to write really good introductory emails. Those things continue to serve me; at events and meetings, I now feel more prepared to talk to anyone around me—seriously, anyone, since now I know that all levels and all contributions make the museums run and research happen—and often, from being the Fellow, I find that a new acquaintance and I already have a connection in common. It has also made me more confident to just reach out to curators whose work I am interested in and/or is important to my research. I see this is a matter of confidence, openness, and generosity, of being able to find common ground, being sincerely interested in what drives other people, and knowing that all of these connections are two-way, so how do I demonstrate my own skills, knowledge, and usefulness to them while showing I am interested in theirs.
What are your career aspirations, and have these changed since you entered your doctoral program?
No! I realized I want to teach art history at a college level so I came to graduate school to become qualified to do so. It’s been very direct and clear from the start. It is still my goal to teach at a school like Pitt, but I also hope at some point to teach at a community college because that is where I realized art history helps me understand the world -- I would like to help other early, non-traditional college students see this perspective and what art history can do for them. Through an internship and teaching at the Carnegie Museum of Art, as well as working closely with Pitt’s Fine Arts Librarian, however, I have found other places to use my skills and knowledge in ways that are also interesting and fun so I can now envision other kinds of work.
How do you frame your disciplinary expertise and doctoral training for non-specialist and for non-academic audiences?
In terms of my research, I just say the news and history books have left the experiences of some people out – art is an in between place where those ideas, stories, and histories can breathe. The artists I study have been telling these important stories all along, but haven’t been heard. My work is to amplify their voices so their stories can be part of a richer, fuller understanding of what it means to be an American, and what our history is and our future will be.
In terms of the broad usefulness of my discipline, I say that humans have been making images for as long as they have been humans—before agriculture, written language, currency, etc. I’d say that alone validates art and suggests that thinking about how images work is important. I tell every class I teach that same thing. Art history training is really about careful observation and critical thinking, skills that are exceptionally useful to most fields of study. Art history is also more broadly useful in navigating our everyday contemporary moment because we are inundated with all kinds of images that demand our attention; in art history, we think about how images operate and communicate—which is useful in contending with advertising, pernicious online spam, and “fake news.” Learning how to bring questions to any image as well as how to learn from an image I think are useful skills to anyone. We also show how to engage historical contextualization as a way of finding meaning and enriching our present. Art, more generally, I think is a space to encountering new, uncomfortable, and sometimes alienating ideas—it’s a place of mediation outside of the news or directly experiencing something yourself, it shows alternative universes and proposes different ways of being (now, in the future, and in the past).
Thank you, Nicole, for taking the time to share your invaluable experiences and expertise with us. We are excited to see how you grow as an art historian and educator!