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Communing with the desert

Visit the Acoustic Ecology Salon @ Hayden Library until Dec. 8.
October 3, 2019

'Acoustic Ecology Salon' open at ASU's Hayden Library through December; listen to five samples in our story

Sometimes the best conversations are the ones where all we do is listen. And when it comes to communing with the environment, there’s a lot that can be learned.

That’s the idea behind “Dust and Shadow: Audio Attunements for Desert Living,” the first project to come out of the recently launched Desert Humanities Initiative at Arizona State University’s Institute for Humanities Research (IHR).

Imagine a space awash in pink-purple light, the deceptively makeshift wooden structure inspired by a hypothetical Solarpunk future. Maps, books and artifacts are tucked around the space, adding context and layers to the main experience: sounds of the desert both distant and urban. That’s the listening salon at the heart of the project.

Along with IHR, ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Center for Philosophical Technologies and Synthesis Center hosted an event at the Tempe campus on Monday, Sept. 23, intentionally timed to take place on the fall equinoxthe first day of autumn, to introduce the project to the community.

“Dust and Shadow” — a transdisciplinary research collaboration between ASU faculty working in the environmental humanities, the aforementioned units and international artists Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney (founders of FoAM) — seeks to encourage a reimagining of our fractured relationship with our desert environment and consider possible futures via sensory experiences.

The Sept. 23 event began with an immersive lecture given by Kuzmanovic at the Memorial Union that felt like a temporal tour of the Arizona landscape through narrative poetry and photographs scored by the sounds of the desert, followed by a reception at Hayden Library, where the new Acoustic Ecology Salon was declared officially open.

The salon, located on Hayden’s main concourse level in room C55, will be open through Sunday, Dec. 8. It is meant to be a space for everyone in the ASU community, but especially students, to feel welcome to spend time interacting with materials like archival maps, books, artifacts, photos and sounds in order to develop a new appreciation and understanding for the place where they live.

vinyl album playing on a Victrola record player

The "Dust and Shadow" vinyl album is available for visitors of the Acoustic Ecology Salon in Hayden Library to play at their leisure through Sunday, Dec. 8. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now







The reception at Hayden also served as a launch party for the vinyl album titled “Dust and Shadow,” a collection of atmospheric sounds recorded by artists Kuzmanovic and Gaffney over two years at sites such as the Grand Canyon, Coal Mine Canyon on the Navajo reservation and the Cave Creek exurbs of Phoenix.

The album is available at the salon for visitors to play at their leisure. At times haunting, grating and serene, it is a striking reminder that the root word of Sonoran (as in the Sonoran Desert that covers much of the state) is “sonorous.”

From a train crossing punctuated by the caws of a bird to coyotes singing in chorus with the far-off wails of an ambulance, it tells an aural story in which nature and culture are in constant conversation.

“This soundtrack exists not to cover up or emphasize existing sounds, but to weave them into a new sonic fiction — one in which Phoenix becomes a city in the desert rather than a city despite the desert,” Kuzmanovic and Gaffney said in a written statement.

The entire album is available to listen and purchase on Bandcamp.

man reading the titles of a stack of books

MFA photo student Joshua Haunschild checks out some books in the Acoustic Ecology Salon. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now







As part of a $380,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, ASU Library will be observing how students interact with the print materials in the salon. Curation specialist Emily Pattni helped choose books to include in the salon, including Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel “Dune,” a story of survival set in a barren wasteland of the future.

“It’s intended to be a cavern of curiosity,” Pattni said. “An alternate place of learning that brings the desert inside.”

two men looking at a map

English faculty associate Daniel Najork (left) and doctoral student Michael McVeigh look at an old map of Tempe. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now







The library also contributed several archival maps to the space that demonstrate the development of the region over time. According to English Professor and Director of the Desert Humanities Initiative Ron Broglio, the hope is that visitors use the maps to reflect on ways of living and dwelling in the desert, and perhaps envision better, more sustainable practices for the future.

“Often, the way we live — the habits of life, the way we dwell, the types of buildings we're in, all of that — were ideas formulated on the East Coast or in the Midwest and then imported into the desert,” Broglio said. “So the idea here is that rather than imposing onto the desert landscape, that we listen to it and build from that.”

Broglio pointed to the infamous urban sprawl of Phoenix and the miles of crisscrossing blacktop highways as examples of how we have failed to listen to the desert in the past, while acknowledging that they are representative of larger, structural problems that an individual alone cannot change. However, he said, we can be mindful of things like water use and the carbon footprint of the foods we consume. And he likes to remember a couple of maxims he has heard from biologists over the years: “Are we being good ancestors?” and “Care of the possible.”

“It’s about what we’re leaving for future generations,” he said.

wall decorated with photos and phrases of the desert

International artists Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney spent two years collecting artifacts and sounds of the desert, some of which are on display in the salon. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now







Images and phrases also adorn the space. Many of the photos were taken by Kuzmanovic and Gaffney during their multiple excursions into the desert. They depict dry, cracked mud, rolling hills of saguaros and otherworldly tree trunks.

A native of Belgium, Kuzmanovic said she was surprised to find the desert teeming with life, despite its seemingly inhospitable nature.

“I expected the desert to be much more empty, but it’s so full of life, life that is really alien to me,” she said.

small room filled with books, maps, desert artifacts and a record player

The design of the Acoustic Ecology Salon was inspired by a hypothetical Solarpunk scenario set in the city of Phoenix in the future or a parallel present. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now








The design of the overall space was inspired by a hypothetical Solarpunk scenario set in the city of Phoenix in the future or a parallel present. In the scenario, Hayden Library is both a living archive and underground refuge where the salon acts as a pseudo learning pod-slash-lounge where scholars meet to work, converse and rest among a material collection of histories, field notes and artifacts that describe how this world came to existence.

“It’s highly interactive, Broglio said. “You can sit there and read while listening to the desert landscape. And everything in the space is analog because we wanted to explore what it means to take analog representations of what's just outside our doorstep and move between the immersive experience of being in the desert out there and learning from the desert from within this pod, to create a porous membrane between the library and the desert itself.”

man smiling and talking to people at a cocktail party

English Professor and Desert Humanities Initiative Director Ron Broglio chats with attendees at the Acoustic Ecology Salon launch party. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now







The Desert Humanities Initiative started out as a pet project of ASU Humanities Dean Jeffrey Cohen, who joined the university in 2017 after more than two decades at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“One of the reasons I was very much attracted to this position at ASU is because of the deep strengths in things that people are already doing, particularly among them, environmental humanities,” Cohen said.

In envisioning the initiative, he convened a group of faculty and asked them: “What kind of environmental humanities work could you do here at ASU that could be particular to this place and to our students?”

“Dust and Shadow” is just the first in a series of similarly themed projects planned, including an upcoming “water walk” in collaboration with the Museum of Walking that will take place in the spring of 2020 and be led by the initiative’s inaugural fellow, Sharon Day. Throughout the 2019-20 academic year, Day will visit ASU several times to engage in conversation about water practices, including Nibi Walks and the walking practice of praying for the waters. She'll discuss those during a Nov. 13 talk at the Heard Museum. Her visits will culminate in a walk that begins at the headwaters of the Rio Salado and ends at the confluence of Gila River, on Feb. 14-16, 2020.

Also on the roster are a “desert attunement” symposium, a lecture series, an ethics and sustainability food course and the performance of a new desert-themed musical composition.

“In a variety of ways,” Broglio said, “what we’re looking to do is to expand this into a series of experiments where different faculty might be able to propose interactive installations at ASU so that students can become more aware of the desert itself and how we mediate or represent the desert through different disciplines and technologies.”

Top photo: The "Dust and Shadow" vinyl album is available for visitors of the Acoustic Ecology Salon in Hayden Library to play at their leisure through Sunday, Dec. 8. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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Award-winning author talks 'real and reel' Latino lives at ASU

October 3, 2019

Latino studies expert Frederick Aldama gives lecture on pop culture’s simplification of Latino identity, experience

Over the past couple of decades, depictions of Latino characters have become more frequent in popular media, from Sofía Vergara’s portrayal of Gloria, the Colombian-born wife of the family patriarch on ABC’s uber-successful sitcom “Modern Family,” to Michael Peña’s portrayal of Ponch, an undercover FBI agent in the 2017 feature film reboot of the TV series “CHiPS.”

But just because we’re seeing more Latinos on screen and in popular culture doesn’t mean they’re being represented well. Vergara’s Gloria is hot-headed and has trouble speaking English, and Peña’s Ponch is hypersexualized, both noted stereotypes of the Latino population.

“Are we being asked to laugh with Gloria or are we being asked to laugh at Gloria?” asked Frederick Aldama of an audience of students who had gathered for a lecture he gave Wednesday afternoon at Arizona State University titled “Real and Reel Latinx Lives Matter.”

“Because there’s a big difference, right?” he said. “When the writers are asking us to laugh at her and we’ve never had the chance to laugh with her, it’s a problem.”

Aldama, Distinguished University Professor at The Ohio State University, is an award-winning author known as much for his imaginative comics that tell authentic stories of Latino life as for his scholarly work to advance the field of Latino studies.

“He represents the highest pinnacle of innovation in Latino studies at the present moment, and as we know, ASU is all about innovation,” said David William Foster, Regents Professor of Spanish at ASU’s School of International Letters and Cultures, when he introduced Aldama on Wednesday.

Though they make up about 18% of the current U.S. population and are growing at a rate of about four times faster than any other demographic in the country, Hispanics and Latinos only see about 2% representation in media, Aldama said. What’s worse, when they are depicted, it’s often as one of a handful of negative stereotypes, ranging from hot-headed to oversexed to cowardly to criminal.

“This stuff should drive you nuts,” Aldama told the crowd.

His visit to ASU’s Tempe campus came midway through Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15.

“This country is so good at erasing histories that are inconvenient to them,” said Aldama, who founded the Obama White House award-winning LASER: Latinx Space for Enrichment and Research. “We get one month out of the year, so we might as well have fun.”

Aldama grew up during the 1970s in California, when he remembers being punished for speaking Spanish or speaking English with a Spanish accent.

“It (knowledge of the Spanish language) became something we coveted but publicly were ashamed of,” he said.

Aldama’s father was a civil rights activist from Mexico City. His mother was of Irish and Guatemalan descent. As a teacher, she hoped to change the negative cultural view of Latinos, inspiring Aldama to focus on the subject as an undergrad at Berkeley, and later as a doctoral student at Stanford.

While studying media and pop culture, he said, “I wanted to know: What do they actually do in the world? Are they just entertainment? Are they more than entertainment? How do they transform audiences to act in the world? … What is pop culture studies? Why even bother? Because this stuff matters. … Media matters because it does act on us and it does change things; our ideas about people.”

When Aldama asked the crowd to name a Latino story or character they’d seen depicted in the media recently, the first two responses were “Jane the Virgin,” a satirical telenovela, and “Hustlers,” a 2019 film about the lives of exotic dancers that includes Jennifer Lopez among its cast.

“OK, so we have the virgin and the whore,” Aldama said. “Is that all we’re getting? I don’t know, I think we can do better.”

He said that doing better means putting Latinos behind the camera — writing, editing and directing — not just in front of the camera, so that more accurate, positive stories can be told.

“One Day at a Time,” a web series documenting the ups-and-downs experienced by a family of Cuban Americans, is a good example of that, he said, as is the 2014 film “The Book of Life.”

“What I love about this movie is, guess who (the) primary audience is? It’s you guys,” Aldama told the majority Hispanic and Latino students gathered to hear him speak.

Despite much of his lecture being focused on screen media, Aldama’s “big passion” is comic books.

“This is where we’re really going nuts,” he said, noting that “Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life,” the memoir of an undocumented immigrant by Alberto Ledesma, was recently chosen as required reading for freshmen attending California State University, Northridge. Aldama also gave props to Gabby Rivera’s “America Chavez,” published by superhero powerhouse Marvel Comics.

“Marvel is finally getting it; getting that we need Latinx’s … telling our stories,” he said.

Aldama himself has contributed to the genre with such comics as “Dora,” a story told from the perspective of a young girl detained in what he referred to as the “concentration camps” at the U.S.-Mexico border. His most recent endeavor is the children’s book “The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie,” a second-generation vegan chupacabra, set to publish in January of 2020.

“When we go to the library, we don’t see our stories,” Aldama said. “I want to make sure we’re not just thinking and teaching and studying this stuff. I want to be putting this stuff out in the world.”

In 2015 Aldama founded SOL-CON: The Brown and Black Comix Expo at The Ohio State University as a space where brown and black comic artists and animators can come together with students, indie comics, exhibitors and industry insiders to tell their own stories.

At his talk on Wednesday, health sciences senior Christine Otaluka asked Aldama what he thought about Afro-Latin American representation, noting how actor Jharrel Jerome, who portrayed the African American man Korey Wise in the Netflix drama “When They See Us,” identifies as Afro-Latin American but is only being recognized by the media as African American.

Aldama agreed that a better understanding of intersecting and multicultural identities is much needed in popular media, citing his graduate student Danielle Orozco's piece for “Latinx Spaces” titled “Race and Alien Face: The Other-Worldly Roles of Zoe Saldana” as acknowledgement of that.

“It’s an area that needs work, but we also need to raise awareness about it within our own communities,” he said.

Top photo: The Ohio State University Distinguished University Professor Frederick Aldama delivers a lecture titled "Real and Reel Latinx Lives Matter" at the Memorial Union on ASU's Tempe campus, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now