“Luciferous: On Bioluminescence + (Sub)surface Darkness” - Cecilio M. Cooper
Fireflies are among the most conspicuous bioluminescent organisms existing topside. Creatures that emit their own chemically generated light from within also populate oceanic and subterranean depths, which are obscured planetary realms long associated with chthonic underworlds. Bioluminescence causes squids, fish, fungi, insects, bacteria, and worms to glow in dim conditions beyond the Sun’s rays. Their colorful flashes and glimmers function as camouflage, thus allowing them to evade predators and lure prey. Sensitive infrared night vision cameras seem best equipped to image the phenomenon. Two of the main substances fueling bioluminescence, Luciferin and Luciferase, share etymological roots with Lucifer, the radiant fallen angel and ruler of hell below chronicled in Abrahamic traditions. Coincidentally, certain clinical and industrial applications of bioluminescent technology have attracted public suspicion because they are thought to be readily weaponizable for malevolent purposes. Given this context, my talk considers how demonological perspectives inflect understandings of bioluminescence as a visual and scientific phenomenon.
Cecilio M. Cooper is a Forsyth Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan. By engaging the visual cultures of alchemy, demonology, and cartography, their first book manuscript South of Heaven: Surface, Territory + the Black Chthonic examines the occulted role blackness plays in cosmological constitutions of territory throughout Europe and the Americas. They earned their PhD from Northwestern University in 2019.
"Home Rule Contemporary: Experimental Art and Self-Determination in Kalaallit Nunaat" - David Norman
With the Home Rule Act of 1979, Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) achieved an unprecedented level of political autonomy. Curiously, in the midst of this long-awaited confrontation with Danish colonial rule, the generation of artists whose careers began under expanded sovereignty shied away from political and cultural imagery. But not all was as it appeared. As I will discuss, Kalaallit and Tunumiit artists applied their commitment to self-determination toward redefining the conceptual foundations of media like installation and video, inventing formal and technical language that facilitated the continuity of cultural knowledge, but which also challenged colonial inequalities that persisted during the Home Rule era. Extending questions raised by these projects, in this talk I will ask how art should respond when colonialism adopts more opaque forms of power, masking control over land and resources through the strategic recognition of cultural difference.
David W. Norman is a Forsyth Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on modern and contemporary art in Greenland and the circumpolar north. He is particularly interested in the politics of form and media, as well as the broader histories and geographies of Indigenous conceptual art. He earned his PhD from the University of Copenhagen in 2021.
"Negotiating Offense of Rhodesian Proportion" - Daniel Herwitz
The essay on which this talk is based explores the multiple positions of offense across
racial and artistic lines in Cape Town's Rhodes Must Fall Campaign of 2015, raising questions about how offense might best be negotiated.
What Can You Actually Accomplish During an Epidemic? Art at the Venetian Plague Hospitals, 1450–1750 - Jennifer Gear
During the Early Modern period, it was widely believed that visual art could offer powerful protection against disease, both preventing it and hastening recovery for those who were already sick. Following the Black Death in the 1350s and through the eighteenth century, the creation of countless works of art and material culture registered the importance of images to fight the plague. Knowing this, one would expect that the two Venetian lazzaretti—the most sophisticated hospitals devoted to the management of plague in the Early Modern world—would have been sites where visual art proliferated. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. This talk will explore what we know about visual art at the Venetian plague hospitals, from graffiti to state-commissioned works, to consider what this suggests about productivity and motivation during major outbreaks of disease and afterwards.
Jennifer Gear is a Lecturer in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan, where she received her PhD in 2018. She specializes in Early Modern Venice and its regional cities in the 15th–18th centuries. Her research and publications examine the relationship between plague and art production, particularly commemorative works that engage with the disease as an historical phenomenon.
Dust Bowl Murals: Environmental Disaster and Settler Colonialism on the American Plains - Michaela Rife
Dust Bowl Murals: Environmental Disaster and Settler Colonialism on the American Plains
What does a community want from their public art in the midst of an environmental disaster? To begin to answer that question, Dust Bowl-era post office murals in towns and cities on the American Plains offer compelling case studies. With settler faith in local industries and agricultural productivity frayed by environmental and economic woes, government-sponsored artists designed murals intended to mend that faith through scenes of pioneers, bountiful harvests, and working oil fields. In this talk, I will discuss how these public artworks functioned in the context of an environmental disaster, but I will also explain how the 1930s Dust Bowl was but one symptom of the condition of settler colonialism, a long and ongoing “disaster.”
Michaela Rife is a postdoctoral fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows and an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art. Her research focuses on the art and visual cultures of the American West, particularly surrounding resource extraction and settler colonialism. She is also interested in the larger fields of environmental art history and ecocriticism. She earned her PhD from the University of Toronto in 2020.